After several passes of curiosity, the boy comes over to my corner of shade outside the “tienda.”
“Where are you from?” he asks shyly.
“England.” I reply, taking a thirst quenching sip from my cola.
“Is that far?”
“Ohhh, yes! Very far!” I tell him.
“Is it close to Germany?” he asks.
“Mmmm, more or less, yeah.”
“How long does it take with your motorcycle?” he says leaning closer now on his bicycle.
“Ohh, you can’t go by motorcycle.”
“What about a bus?”
“Nooo, there’s no road!”
“No. There’s a big ocean, so you need a plane! It’s about 6000km or so.”
“Yeah, it’s about 16 hours….” I say to him, but he looks confused and add, “or maybe a month on a boat!”
“Farther than the city?” he asks after a moment.
“Oh yes! Much further!”
“Further than USA?”
“Oh yes,” I say staring at my empty coke bottle contemplating, “Yup…..” It is very far, and seems impossibly so now, when only days ago I was there saying goodbye to my family….
That fleeting moment, a goodbye. Apprehended, but unplanned. Not a moment for lingering, a moment when all the unspoken could be said, but for that the moment slips away and then you slip away, turning your back, time stopping whilst you move away, leaving a painful wake, that catches up with you sooner or later, for me at the baggage check.
So, I was alone again, fending for myself again, a peculiar and forgotten feeling after so long, but it doesn’t last for soon I am with Andrés, at his home in Guatemala City, my home from home it seems. Here we fettle with bikes, me on the new unnamed one, and he on Rudolf which he has working again….for how long who can say, but he seems very pleased with his gift, the least I can give for all he has done for me. All Saints Day comes and a visit to Sumpango is in order to see the “barilletas gigantes” (giant kites), a grand day out and mightily impressive, where locals fly these giant kites in the hope of their dead loved ones being closer to the gods, to rid the lands of evil spirits and suchlike, and a hundred small and large kites decorate the sky, on what must be the longest pieces of string ever…some of them seem to disappear in to the stratosphere!
Andres and I return and spend days visiting welders and shops for spares, working on the bikes from early until late and soon the Unnamed One (the Honda bike) is ready – apart from a name – and I suppose I should be ready too, though I am far from feeling so. I think again of my early days leaving England; how come this doesn’t get any easier, I should be an old hand by now, at goodbyes and stepping off into the unknown. But the unknown again terrifies me and I find myself trying to plan for every eventuality….with scenario after deathly scenario running through my mind.
The luggage leaves little room on the saddle; my first time on the loaded Honda and the first day is uncomfortable, though passing through roads I have seen before, several times when travelling back and to, to the city, when Rudolf was faltering and needed help. Now I head to Joyabaj, a camp spot I have stayed at too, several times.
I hate the loneliness, but I know now that it’s a passing phase, it will fade and eventually I will be better for it. Wondering if we are not actually meant to be alone, solitary nomads, with only inherent weakness keeping us together, the fear of the unknown. Or is it only my own weakness and failings that push me away. The noise at camp is unbearable, how do I sleep amongst this! Buses and animals, music, the wind in the trees, or the falling pine cones giving me a jolt!
When I reach my old farthest point, where I last left off, my target is a small “aldea” (village), named Lancetillo, north west of Coban. Not much seems to be know about the road, even if it exists and my odd fixation with came about through not wanting to turn back from the more popular aldeas in the Ixil triangle (see last blog) – the norm being an out-and-back route. I heard that the road is “very bad,” but when I get there and ask around it seems that actually it doesn’t exist at all, only walking trails from Lancetillo. There is, however, another way and so I take this thinking that if I make it to Lancetillo this way, perhaps ther I can retrace my steps on this supposedly non-existent route. Or otherwise try to reach Coban directly. But again, when I ask on this route it seems there is only a road to Lancetillo, one must return back the same way.
I push on regardless, maybe they are wrong, or maybe this is just a waste of time, after all, there is nothing there and I only want to reach it for, well, for what? And I ride along wondering if this is a bit of a pointless road to take in mud and fog, only for me to have to return, no better off, at square one, the same person as before, only with time having passed.
I find a good camp at a waterfall, where I can contemplate my thoughts and decide over a good sleep, but in the morning, packed up and ready to go, I still can’t decide until I find myself at the point at which I MUST decide; left, downhill and ride through the river to Lancetillo, or right uphill back to asphalt and maybe even sunshine. I don’t decide, fate does that for me, or was it the Gods, or just gravity….whatever, I’m coasting down to the river, where taking a photo of the little crossing, my foot slips and I slam palm and camera first in to the gravel, breaking my new – and fifth – camera on day two. Mierd.
It’s the darn balance again!! (karma – see previous blogs!). Perhaps I didn’t deserve the camera – a fantastic gift from my dad – or the time at home even and I have an outstanding debt. Or maybe now I’m in credit, and can expect good things….yes, that’s it!
But then it starts to rain and I must wade through trenches of slippy mud and a fug of fog, still wondering if this is a bit pointless.
“Yeah, Lancetillo’s great,” a man tells me roadside when I ask him, “lots of bars, food stalls, a hotel….and loads of women!” he continues. But he also tells me there are no other roads, I must come back this way. This does wonders to raise my optimism, though the rain seems to be trying it’s equal best to cool my desires to reach Lancetillo and eventually I pull over to turn around. As I do so, a quad bike comes tearing through the fog behind me, passing by and stopping eventually half a kilometer further, before beginning to slowly reverse back along the cliff edge road.
Leon pulls alongside, dressed in a bright yellow mac with a hood that hides most of his face, save a pair of dark sunglasses, a black bin bag protects his legs from the rain.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
“Not sure. Lancetillo I think.”
“I was thinking that myself…” I say, twisting up my face.
“No, just a tourist.”
“I don’t know about that!”
“I don’t know, I wanted to go to Coban, or maybe to Putul. But, I’m not sure if there are any roads.”
“No, this is not possible, only walking trails.”
“Then I think I’ll go back then.” I say, until he slips in,
“But there is a road to Laguna Lachua.” And instantly everything changes. I was going to visit there anyway, but it’s far north, far from here and I wonder if I can make it even on my fuel. Excited Leon phones his friend in Lancetillo and from the one ended conversation I hear, it is obvious tha tthe road is either hardly in existence, very hard and possibly dangerous, or maybe all three.
“But he is an adventurer with a big dual sport bike, he is very _______.” Leon says down the phone, I’d like to correct him on all counts, even the one I didn’t understand, but the conversation is animated t osay the least and shows no signs of abating, until suddenly Leon says, “Yup, there is a road, what are you waiting for, let’s go!”
Is this fate, the work of the balance, or even, I wonder if there could be a god…in which time Leon has disappeared leaving only the booming resonance of his exhaust note behind, and I must catch him up.
I manage to do so only on a steep rocky section, where it seems, he is having trouble engaging any gear on his quad and I tootle past, asking if he is okay….
“Buen adventura, no?” he says, stamping on the shifter still trying to find a gear.
And it is, I suppose. Yes! he’s dead right! And, trying to chase Leon, into the unknown, trusting only others, this is why I take stupid pointless roads! This is why I do it….people always ask, why? And this is why! And I smile a huge grin as Leon connects with first gear and disappears again far off in to the distance and I watch the yellow blob screech around the corner of the mountain on two wheels not to be seen again until I meet him at Juan’s house in Lancetillo.
“So this is the idiot!” I assume they are saying when I arrive (actually I don’t think that!) and they go on to tell me in detail the route ahead, which villages to go to, to ask for, which fincas, then a bridge and then La Playa. They mention one hour, plus three hours. I wonder if this is one hour is easy, then it’s really tough or the other way about, and if this isn’t the old “it takes 4 days in a car, but on THAT bike you can do it in ten minutes.”
Lancetillo itself is a quagmire of mud and puddles, where people walk about barefoot and ankle deep in the stuff, ignoring the many planks of wood that have long ago sunk in to the ooze.
Beyond Lancetillo the road turns steep, and rocky; loose rocks, that along with the lack of power of the 125cc bike make progress almost impossible, trying to keep the speed up, to keep in the “power” band, tight hairpins must be hit at maximum speed, to ensure I keep in the band, and the large rocks buck the bike left and right and send the front wheel into a weightless wheelie, and eventually, one rock too many, I end up flat out in the ditch. The bike creaks and cracks, the sound of heat dissipating out through it’s every square millimeter, and I must drag it down the hill to have any chance of picking it up, from where it wants only to slip down the precipice, and take me with it.
I manage to get it upright, and then must go back downhill, a hill start is impossible, to gain speed and try again. On attempt three, with deft use of the clutch and flailing legs paddling upwards, I make it to the summit….just. A little bit knackered, breathing a sigh of relief….and wondering “what next?”
What goes up, must come down and I’m faced with a decision, to go down the mountain, which could be worse; steeper, washed away, muddy, a landslide, impossible perhaps, and what about the bridge,m after the rainy season? Perhaps I should turn back, I could be riding into a trap.
But those little scallywags the gods, or fate, the balance or that little bugger gravity have other ideas, and somewhat reluctantly my left foot pushes me off and the mountain sucks me down towards the darkness of the unknown, downhill towards, I pray, a bridge of hope.
As the path slips beneath the wheels I scout the trail, muddy, steep, rocky with fallen trees, “I can’t make it up here….”
“The bridge is that way,” says a man sitting amongst the grass at the bottom, taking a rest from lugging wood down the hill in the harsh glare of heat, “but you can’t pass,” he adds, “the bridge is out.”
I was afraid of this, and am left with only one other option, to go back….if I can indeed go back. And I can, though only by running, scrabbling, tripping, falling, and all the while pushing the bike ever upwards, and eventually back to relative safety my body again starts to contemplate things other than survival; namely food and water and rest.
When I pass back through Lancetillo I see Leon’s friend Juan, who asks what happened. Onlyfor him to then explain that it was passable, with a rope or something that I don’t fully understand (though I wonder if he is right) and I curse myself for not at least having gone to see the bridge and this thought plays on my mind all the way back to last nights camp.
Alas, there is plenty more on my horizons in Guatemala and next I head to Semuc Champey, passing through the delightful lakeside town of Santa Cristobal Verapaz; the essence of “tranquilo” and then Coban….which though in the guidebooks is an area not to be missed, seems to lack any personal appeal and should in fact be wholeheartedly missed.
Champey is reached through the slightly rough rough road through to Lanquin and beyond, down into the hot valley floor of the river Cahabón. I think about camping at the park when I arrive in the evening, but decide against it on account of it a) being 50Q ($6) and b) being crap.
Riding back towards Lanquin I wonder about my options – or lack of – when I see a man working in the cooler evening air in amongst his maize field and stop to chat. I approach him and ask about the possibility of camping at his place, soon surrounded by the entire family who have limited Spanish. But it seems, there’s no problem and I start setting up my tent next to their house. The tent is a thing of amazement for them, and we are soon chatting as darkness falls and the mosquitoes rise.
“Do you want some tortillas?” the children ask as I cook my dinner.
“No, thanks, I have some already, and vegetables, carrot, beetroot, broccolli, onion and some biscuits, I always have biscuits!”
“So…. are you coming then? Vamos!” It seems they don’t understand a word of what I’ve just said, so I decide to just go with them, led to the table, told to wash my hands….where….just there…what here, in the middle of the room, yes….okay…..and the boy tips some water on my hands. “Is that okay?” he asks, I don’t know, they were kind of okay before I think to myself….
I sit down at the table with Manuel, the father, and somewhere in the candlelit darkness sit his wife and seven kids in a room that is the house, no bigger than a living room, along with three beds, a fire cooker and a years supply of maize. A bowl is brought forward to me, containing an egg and some soup, then chilli and salt and of course, tortillas!
“How do I eat it?” I ask sheepishly.
“Just put the egg in the tortilla.” says Manuel. So I do as bid and put the whole hard boiled egg in the tortilla….and look at it, that stupid thing the egg, sitting there forlornly in the middle of a large tortilla, thinking to myself that this doesn’t seem right, it looks a bit silly, the whole egg sitting in the middle of the tortilla, so I wait to see what the other do…how do you eat the soup….without a spoon….the kids come and stick their fingers in the chilli, then the salt, and mash a bit of egg in….and I follow suit. feeling kind of bad that I’m taking their food. I chat with Manuel as we eat, and soon coffee is bought over….the coffee granules floating about the cup.
“I think you need a coffee filter,” I say, hoping my bad Spanish doesn’t come across as rude, but luckily he doesn’t understand. “Give me a moment….” I say darting out the door.
In my tent I grab a coffee filter I don’t use and after some hesitation – for I love them so – I grab my biscuits, and go back to give them to Manuel. The coffee filter is well received but the biscuits are disliked by all, except the mother who seems content to eat anything! Darn it! Perhaps I should have kept them!!
In the morning I take a poo in the middle of the woods – at the actual toilet I should say – in full view of the road, the house and the shop, and the family. I wonder if they are playing a big trick on me, but it seems not. Then it’s on to Semuc champey.
The tranquil aqua pools of Semuc Champey actually sit atop of the natural bridge that is created by the torrent of the river Cahabón, so whilst I swim peacefully amongst the fish in the pools, somewhere below me the river is raging foaming white and angry and pops out someway down to continue as the wide and deep rio.
From here I ride up to Laguna Lachua, getting another dreaded puncture along the way, a six inch nail which rips the rim tape too, a new experience for me coming from alloy wheels which don’t use these anda trip back to Coban is necessary to replace my sellotaped repair. Still the balance has it that good things must come in return and soon I find myself sleeping at a large finca (rich guys farm) where the men are hard at work drying the beautifully yummy cardamom seeds.
Lachua is reached along an easy but arduous stoney road, but it’s worth every effort for the lake that greets me on the far end of a the walk through the jungle is perfect, a million miles from the rest of Guatemala, peaceful, tranquil and alive with animal and plant life, monkeys, jaguars, huge fish diving in the waters and electric blue butterflies the size of my hand. I don’t see any jaguars unfortunately, but other than the monkeys I see I feel at least that I am the only one in the park, for I see no one the entire time. Reluctantly I drag myself away from the lake, looking back all the while, walking back through the mosquito infested jungle to the bike and another camp at another house.
Here at camp, Augusto, the man of the house invites me to eat an orange with him, they laugh a I peel the orange by hand – for they use knives and when I go to set up camp I am surrounded by their three staring kids, amazed at my tent, my blow up bed and my stove and carrots….apparently they’d never tried them until I offered them some, with a tortilla for good measure!
I ride into the deeper jungle of the north then, into the region of Peten and instantly feel a change in the people, who seem at least from the outside not as warm as the rest of Guatemala as I have found and I camp alone in one of many a maize field that seem to have taken over the jungle. I am in awestruck by how much jungle has been razed to make room for “tortilla fields”.
The reason for anyone’s trip to Peten is usually always to visit Tikal, the site of some of the best regarded ancient Mayan pyramids. I was keen to avoid it, at $20 it seemed a rip off, until that is I visited the free El Ceibl (which was pretty dire) and spoke to the staff who had worked all over the archaeological sites in Peten, and told the prices of some others I had planned to see, all over $100. This made Tikal look a bargain, so I went there!
I’d seen pictures everywhere, on tourist posters and on the side of Bimbo snack trucks and was actually a little under-awed despite having the place largely to myself at 6am, though still an enjoyable visit nonetheless. I expected this actually, as I had considered that nothing had gone wrong on my way there and so the balance was simply, for the time being; on an even keel….!!! ….until after my visit and I got another puncture!! This time a watch strap pin! Hay caramba!
“Do you mind if I put my tent right by the lake?” I asked the staff member at the free campsite of Yaxja’s archaeological site after having enjoyed the perfect sunset from atop one of the pyramids.
“If you want, but there are ‘crocodrilos’!” he told me. I told him I had no meat for them to want to even bother me and he said it was fine, and it sure was! A great spot…though the beady orange eyes of the crocodrilos at night were kind of eerie!
As were the howler monkeys, they look cute, but by golly they sound like a King Kong growling!!!
Then it was simply a case of heading back to the city on my way south again, to write this pesky blog(!) and catch up with friends there, stopping at Laguna Flores, the unimpressive Rio Dulce and the much more enjoyable road from El Estor through the valley back towards Coban – top stuff – stopping along the way to get hit by what looked like a giant high velocity black bee at 40mph, then stuck in some lovely deep wet mud and then – with the balance tipped in my favour – at a fantastic house with the loveliest family in Guatemala surely….. and then the city, though feeling sick after a special treat; a meal out!
From the city it’s to Honduras, finally I will get to truly carry on my trip, with the Unnamed One, south.