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The Copans: Santa Rosa & Ruinas

T:  Nobody goes to Honduras. One out of 30 travellers that we have met on this trip have spent time there. Apparently, it’s dangerous. So naturally, we needed to thoroughly explore this country before we could be convinced. It began in Santa Rosa de Copan, our first stop after a somewhat easy border crossing. Our first surprise was that Honduras is more expensive than thought, considering how few tourists check out areas other than the Bay Islands. We had anticipated the less populated areas to be cheap as chips. Santa Rosa is a super cute little hilltop colonial city/town;  cobble stone streets winding throughout its center with the rugged outskirts below. Erik found us a luxury little boutique hotel, extremely comfortable, clean and with exceptional service- all for $20 a night, running only a few dollars more than the super dingy hostel listed in the Lonely Planet. This proved an excellent choice, as Erik fell very sick mid-slumber on our first night in our cozy new bed. Despite the smiling locals, adorable shops and colourful homes, it had proven difficult our first night to procure dinner. Much to my dismay, we ended our hunger march at Erik’s choice- a sports bar. We sucked back several Salva Vidas, the local beer. While Erik dug into a horrid attempt at lasagna, I went for fries and chicken strips, going for simple and safe. I believe the red meat in Erik’s meal is the suspected culprit of his sickness which lasted for two full days. He still thinks it was sunstroke. Luckily, the hotel staff were lovely, bringing him tea and water and rushing in to clean the washroom when I convinced Erik some fresh air might be nice and dragged him around the block. Despite the illness and incessant rainfall which flowed like rivers down the steep streets, we were pleasantly surprised at how welcoming, friendly and approachable the local Hondurans were and therefore, excited to venture further.

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E:  Santa Rosa de Copan was one of my favourite towns on the trip so far. It is a pleasant colonial town in the highlands of Honduras, with few modern conveniences and not a tourist or traveler to be seen. The local people were so amazingly friendly and helpful which was a nice (although not altogether astonishing) surprise after the myriad stories we had heard about how perilous it can be to travel in Honduras. I’m sure most of these stories come secondhand or are gleaned from western news reports and statistics because you will not find a more tranquil or laidback town than Santa Rosa. Unfortunately, I succumbed to sunstroke for the third time on the trip after the long, hot ride from El Salvador the day before. I suppose that when I’m riding, the wind convinces me that I’m cool while the tropical sun is actually cooking me inside my riding gear. I was thankful to have Tanya to fetch me soup and Piedialyte and the hotel staff were lovely bringing me whatever I needed and rushing in to clean the room whenever Tanya coaxed me out for some fresh air. After a couple days, once I was again able to stand without hallucinating and keep my food down, we spent a couple of relaxing days wandering around the main plaza and chatting with locals in the surrounding neighbourhoods. I found an amazing hairdresser down the street from our Boutique Hotel, who actually gave me a decent, non-Latino haircut. To be sure, I had showed her a picture of Tatum Channing on my computer and was ecstatic when I walked out of the salon looking like GI Joe, not 1-1/2 hours later. The haircut was $5. I was so pleased with the result, I tipped the girl another $5. She was beside herself not only because of the tip but because I liked the haircut so much and, of course, because she got to cut a gringos hair. I wish my Supercuts experiences at home were this rewarding.

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Fireworks depot on the highway outside Santa Rosa

Fireworks depot on the highway outside Santa Rosa

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When it was time to depart from this wonderful hamlet, I took Tanya down to the bus station and she caught a bus to another town called Copan Ruinas a few hours away. As soon as she was off, I got on my bike and quickly raced back into town to grab some prezzies. She had found a real well made pair of cowboy boots in a leather shop in town during one of our walks. The cowboy boots which she had brought from home and which garner her tons of attention by the locals, were pretty worn and needed an upgrade. But my real mission this day was to find an engagement ring! Unbeknownst to Tanya, I had placed a Skype call to her Dad to ask for her hand while we were in El Salvador. She was taking a nap in our hostel room in Suchitoto and I had snuck out with my laptop and made the call, seeking to be extremely quiet, from the corridor where I was able to get the best internet signal. Twig was happy to receive this call and gave us a rousing endorsement saying he had figured an engagement may have been in the cards before too long. So now I had the requisite permission from the father but no ring with which to propose. I had earlier made some inquiries about getting a ring made in Vancouver and sent to one of the capital cities, but basically realized it would be pretty silly to give Tanya a piece of jewellery worth a few thousand dollars which she wouldn’t be able to wear. Muggings are probably more prevalent in Central America than in any other place in the world. I had shrewdly been sizing Tanya’s finger by trying on her rings over the past couple months. Although I had searched the jewellery quarters in both Guatemala City and San Salvador, I hadn’t been able to find a ring that I thought Tanya would like. All of the engagement rings were the classic skinny band with a big stone in a claw setting. I was looking for something more unique with some artistic appeal. Trust me, trying to unearth an engagement ring for a goldsmith with a family in the gemstone business while in Central America – not an easy assignment. I had a good feeling about Santa Rosa though and had seen a number of joyerias that did custom work scattered around the plaza. After visiting five stores, I hadn’t found anything suitable and was beginning to panic again thinking about the possibility of having to propose with a pipe cleaner or a plastic Cracker Jacks ring. I strolled into one last store a little ways from the center of town which didn’t have much of a selection at all. I scanned through the glass counter at the same generic rings that I had seen in every store I had thus visited. Fornlorn, I said “Gracias” to the store clerk and was about to walk away, when I noticed a second glass shelf beneath the first that had just one tray sitting near the back of the display. There was one ring in it; a simple gold band with an elegant filigree design on top. I called the girl over and asked to see the ring. When she handed it to me, I tried it on and it slipped perfectly over the first knuckle of my pinky finger, which was the exact size I supposed Tanya’s ring finger to be. I knew instantly that I had found the ring. And… well… if she didn’t like it, I’d be hedging my bets by showing up with the cowboy boots as well. Having made these two noble purchases in addition to my new crew cut and no longer retching, I must say, I was in pretty high spirits this day.

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Teddy Bruschi 'Pats'  Jersey

Teddy Bruschi ‘Pats’ Jersey

T: Copan Ruinas was our second stop, a very popular tourist spot known for the Mayan Ruins nearby. We were growing tired of ruins since Mexico and Guatemala, but decided we shouldn’t rule them out as they are known specifically for the carved hieroglyphs. To put it bluntly, these ruins were kind of shitty, I mean, compared to what we had seen so far. The highlight is a stone staircase which contains the longest pre-Colombian hierglyphic inscription in the Americas. Over two thousand hieroglyphs recounting the Mayan Dynasty. However, the stone stellae scattered across the remainder of the grounds fell short when measured against the grand scale of Chitzen Itza or Tikal. To top it off, they were the most expensive ruins we had visited, with separate entrance fees for the ruins and museum. The one saving grace were the beautiful macaw parrots that live at the park entrance which you can walk right up to and admire. But overall we felt the entrance cost to be exorbitant and after only an hour we had run out of things to look at, despite Erik’s attempt to find a walking trail which abruptly ended at a chain-link fence after five minutes. 

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The town of Ruinas Copan itself is cute and cobblestone (these seem to go hand in hand) and I did find us a killer deal at a great hostel, but it wasn’t enough to keep us there for long. After our one hour, $60 visit to the ruins, we were left with quite a lot of day to fill. We were lucky to find a cute butterfly refuge tucked into the forest on the outskirts of town. Here we spent almost two hours marveling at the exotic plants and trying to identify the different butterflies from the sheet we were given at the entrance. The cost of admission was $3 apiece… a much better return on our investment, we thought.

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It rained pretty hard later that afternoon. As we navigated through the streets which had turned to rivers, we found ‘Twisted Tanya’s’, a fantastic home style restaurant serving a backpackers four-course special. We lounged on the balcony and enjoyed some excellent fare accompanied by numerous margaritas and other frothy drinks as the sun disappeared behind the houses. This in fact, was the highlight of our time in Ruinas Copan, and after two nights we headed further into the country hoping to have a more authentic Honduran experience.20130703-DSCN028520130703-DSCN029220130703-DSCN029320130703-DSCN030020130703-DSCN0310

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El Salvador

T: It’s been raining for the past hour at the beach town of El Tunco on the southern coast here in El Salvador. Particularly unlucky as I decided to have a nap before grabbing some food and water and woke up late just as the storm hit. Finally it seems to halt, so I take the opportunity to find some eats. Having priced-out the majority of restaurants upon my arrival, I grab a seat at the place I know will do the job at a reasonable rate and fast. I haven’t eaten a proper meal all day and my plantain chips and melted chocolate snack is long digested. I sit down on a flimsy wooden bench and look out into the street, taking note of my surroundings as I wait to place my order. There is a line of ants skillfully balancing leaf bits and marching single file towards their lair. I follow them almost completely around my table, unsure of their origin and see that the army disappears around a wall. Not the kitchen wall, I silently assure myself, as the waiter approaches to take my order. All I want is some traditional papusas but they don’t have any. “Only Mexican food,” says the server, a soft spoken clean-cut Latin gentleman in his 40’s. Hmm. So I ask for fish tacos and a bottle of water, hoping my stomach will agree and that the fish is fresh. There are two massive spiders under the table beside me posing in the fluorescent spotlight and I force my mind to relax as I shift my chair back a few inches.  To my left are two men, a mismatched pair at first glance, but then the commonalities present themselves;  seldom washed hair, board shorts, sun damaged, weathered skin. Despite their age and differing nationalities, it is obvious that they share a passion for surfing. I open an ear to their conversation and my assessment rings true, although in Spanish, I gather they are discussing today’s outing on the waves. A woman props open the door to her tienda with a rock – the only store open at this hour. She merrily waddles past me and slumps down heavily at the table to my right, staring off into the distance, smiling. I trace her gaze and just as I reach its end, a torta is placed in front of her, disturbing her peace yet delighting her senses. She must have pre-ordered, or maybe she eats a torta every night at 11pm. A young Isreali couple slow their pace and cease chatting as they pass, stretching their necks and turning their eyes down just a smidge, checking out me, the lady’s torta and the kitchen. I’m distracted bya man, probably in his 60’s, who peddles by on a pink bicycle made for a girl of thirteen or so, compete with frilly flowery basket between the handles. The couple enter the tienda and my head turns to watch the shop owner, still seated in the restaurant. She moves only to consume her sandwich and doesn’t even glance up towards her shop with the open door. A local man, wearing a black apron, takes a cigarette break on a cement step outside the kitchen door. My food’s not up and I think he is most certainly the chef. The pair of surfers are laughing so loud all of a sudden that the waiter appears and walks over to them, to shush them I think, but no, he is breaking into their conversation adding to the belly roars. The chef chimes in, speaking Spanish in a loose, sing-song voice, that similar melody shared by many elderly Spanish or Italian men;  slow, beautiful and so clear that I know most of what he is saying. They are joking about a woman with whom one of them is intimately acquainted, the chef’s remark, acting as the punch line. A young girl, about twelve, pops her head out the kitchen window and signals the waiter to retrieve my food. He does, swiftly, and before me are four fish tacos. The lady beside me gets up, picks her teeth with one long, pointed fingernail and takes incredibly slow steps in the direction of her store, outside of which the couple has been waiting patiently for some time. The waiter wishes me a “buen provecho” and kindly tries to shoo a stray dog from my feet so I can enjoy my meal without the begging whimpers of yet another sickly mutt. The dog, dejected, joins his friends who are lounging, belly up, in shallow muddy puddles across the street. I’m eating my tacos, barely looking up, aiming to get them down rapidly and beat the inevitable late night downpour. A remarkably poised ant struts along the tabletop beside the heel of my hand and stops as if to ask me a question before becoming preoccupied and scurrying off. Strolling by is a group of middle-aged locals carrying fishing rods, buckets and lamps. Taking a moment to yell at the restaurant owner for his order. The owner needs ten fish, mas o menos, depending on their catch. The fishermen tell him they will be back in a few hours and continue taking orders from people on the street, en route to the beach. I feel really good about my dinner selection but ponder the logistics of free dive fishing at night, with all the rocks and giant waves I’d seen in daylight;  the beach is barely swimmable. I inhale my last bite and rise up to find an employee, meeting with my first server as he descends from the upper restaurant bar with an empty plate. I hand him $3.50 for my tacos and water and head in the direction of my hostel. I am greeted, on the dirt road, by an old woman’s massive grin;  she’s missing all of her front teeth. I wave back like a child bearing witness to a magic trick, giving her a louder than appropriate, “bueno noche!” The bar balcony above where I’m walking is host to two obnoxiously loud, drunk, white girls, while at the table below, three prepubescent local boys seem to be plotting a murder amidst whispers, snickers and wide-eyed stares. This encourages me to quicken my stride, but I am careful to avoid little streams or rainwater and piles of dog poo, which both seem endless. A 90’s Volvo with tinted windows creeps past slowly enough to be suspicious. I casually hop onto the sidewalk and tuck in behind some cars, waiting for it to disappear before continuing on at an even brisker pace. Finally, just as thunder crackles, I reach my temporary home, intrigued and happy to be in El Salvador.

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T: It had been a pretty quick decision to leave Guatemala. I had booked a collectivo straight to El Tunco, El Salvador to simplify the border crossing and long ride. Luckily, I was completely packed up the night before because for once in five months, my bus was on time! I had yet to take a bus that either showed up or left as scheduled in all my travels in Latin America, thus far. Needless to say, of course, on this day our alarm failed to go off. Luckily I woke up at five minutes to 6am and had just enough time to quickly dress and grab my gear as Erik held the collectivo outside the house. Annoyingly at such an early hour, my bus was full of hungover, party-chasing backpackers who had spread their bags, pillows, snacks and crap all over the bus. They all turned out to be very nice, but having hid in our hamlet of Panajachel for more than a month, I certainly wasn’t used to dealing with such a rowdy, obnoxious crowd. To top it off, I was the only one who knew any Spanish so when one of them needed to ask the driver to accommodate any number of their whims, they tapped me on the shoulder to please translate their requirements. By the end of the journey, the driver and I had exchanged many hilarious eye rolls at the oblivious pesky passengers. I thought at first this is the reason he never asked me to pay the rest of my fare, because he had taken a liking to me, but in reality he probably just forgot. I had paid half up front through the tour company and was supposed to give the driver the rest later, but I didn’t say anything and neither did he! I gave him a decent tip to appease my karma and he seemed none the wiser.

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El Salvador was noticeably different than Guatemala from the get go. Woman wear impossibly tight clothing, music blares from everywhere and people seem to have a much harsher and more untrustworthy countenance. It is miles away from the strict conservative culture of Guatemala. I hopped off in a little town before the others to try and avoid being swept into the crowd, which proved a mistake as there were only a handful of total shit holes to stay at. After an exhausting search for a decent hostel I ended up walking for seemingly forever along a deserted rocky beach to find myself at the touristy part of town anyway. I immediately ran into the girls from my bus who were long settled and already cracking their third beers. Wanting to avoid their party, I found a cozy spot with a friendly owner and a little pool just off the beach. Sounds silly to have a pool, but in El Tunco, a huge surfing destination, the beach is not for swimmers. Even walking along the black sand can burn your feet during peak sunlight hours. Furthermore, the current is extremely powerful, and with every crashing wave comes several rocks big enough to bruise your ankles and crush your toes.  Makes it easy to spot the naive but eager newcomers with grossly black and blue legs who have waded through the 100 or so feet of shallow surf lookng for a decent place to swim. In the next few days we found little inviting about El Tunco. The local population is made up of territorial male surfers with massive trapezius muscles, dark skin, long, dirty, bleached-blond hair and a hunger for drunk white females. Apparently, Steve-o of jackass fame had recently hit up the area to catch some waves and the bedside comfort of a very young Canadian girl I’d met. (She even had photos and text messages to prove it)! The best thing we found in El Tunco was a back alley papuseria where a group of sweet local women grilled up fresh papusas at 3 for a dollar filled with whatever you fancied. A far cry from the $1 apiece small bean or chicken papusas travelers would find across from the popular beach. If I haven’t stated it enough, for folks not in it to surf, the hype did not match the greasy, cheesy tourist trap that was El Tunco.

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E:  I finally show up to the beach town of El Tunco after a two and a half hour ordeal at the border. When some mates told me it had taken them three hours to clear their bikes through customs, I didn’t think they were serious. How could something so simple possibly take that long?  Now I know how. I think the El Salvadorean border crossings are designed to be ‘make-work’ projects. Without exaggeration, I dealt with 20 different people at the border not including the blind money changer. He was a hoot. Geezer couldn’t see his calculator. I wanted to change 550 Quetzales into American dollars which they use in El Salvi. First changer I find, I ask if he’ll do 7.8 which is the prime for the day. I’m shocked when he accepts. Changers always try to shave a few points off the actual rate – that’s how they make their money after all. I tell him the amount I want to change and watch as he types 550 / 68 into his calculator. The total comes up, he looks at it and says “ocho dollares.” As he’s saying it I can see that even he knows that isn’t right. “Son usted no un cambiador?” I say mockingly. One of the hangers-on who is milling about in the background tells me in a low voice, “El es casi ciego” (He is nearly blind.) I can’t believe I’m actually dealing with a blind money changer. I suppose he survives on his customer’s moral inability to take advantage of him. I gently ask if I can use his calculator. Punching in the correct calculation using the rate we’ve agreed upon, I tell him it comes out to $70 dollars even. He readily nods his acquiescence and slowly begins counting the money out from his roll. I suspect he has a system for knowing which note is which but I still watch keenly as he thumbs out each bill. Our transaction complete, I bid the man a sincere, “Bueno suerte!” and jump back on my motorcycle about to enjoy a breathtaking ride along the coast.

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I was extremely enthused by the scenery in the first few hours and was hopeful that El Salvador would turn out to be a magical location. Sadly the crowded and grubby traveler haunt of El Tunco left a lot to be desired. Tanya had found a fairly nice hostel with a pool in the yard and parking for my bike. Good thing too, because it was impossible to swim in the ocean here. This was a surfers-only spot and the shallow beach consisted of rough volcanic rocks and a strong undertow. We spent a few days wandering around the touristy streets amid the throngs of surfers and backpackers that converge here. Tanya had met a girl the day before who said she had met and shagged Steve O, of Jackass fame, just a few days before. (Apparently he does indeed have that huge tattoo of himself on his back.) It would have been cool to party with that guy although the girl said he was pretty low key having recently quit smoking and drinking. I managed to find a bar showing the NBA Finals and watched the Heat defeat the Spurs to win the championship. Definitely not how I wanted the playoffs to go, but I partook in most of the games anyway for a bit of familiarity. At one point we tried to escape from El Tunco taking the bike down the coast a half hour or so to Playa San Diego. This was a really beat down community with gangs of young kids sitting along the road, not doing much of anything other than looking particularly sullen and intimidating. The beach here, however, was gorgeous – soft, yellow sand and no rocks – perfect for swimming. We checked out a few local homes which claimed to be hospedajes, but every single person we encountered was patently unfriendly and told us the nightly rate was anywhere from $80 to $100 per night for the dingiest rooms we had yet seen. Screw that! After just a few days in El Salvador, we got the feeling that this is just not an easy country to be a traveler. We retreated back to El Tunco and our white peers.

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The next morning during breakfast, Tanya spied a food cart being peddled down the bumpy laneway. On the side it read “Dane’s Calientes Cheveres”  (Dane’s Hotdogs). Dane is the name of Tanya’s youngest brother. She’s been taking pictures of signs with names of friends and family throughout our entire trip so far. It started in Puerto Escondido when she saw a sign proclaiming Cabanas Edda, which is Tanya’s mom’s name. An unusual name to see in Mexico and since then Tanya has found and photographed signs with the names of her whole family but hadn’t been able to find a ‘Dane’. It had become a game, both of us scanning the sides of the street through multiple countries as we travelled along trying to find a Dane. And finally here it was on the side of a hot dog cart in El Salvador. Maybe this was our saving grace for languishing in El Tunco for so long.

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E: Through Couchsurfing we hooked up with a guy who advertised that he ran an organic farm. He accepted our request with short notice and we decided to drop in on his property a half-hour outside San Salvador. I arrived at the meeting place, the only Mayan Ruins in El Salvi, arriving before Tanya who was bussing up from the coast. The security guard on the grounds very courteously let me use his cell phone to call our host, Mauricio. He showed up in about 10 minutes on his moto and lead me through a maze of little lane ways , fields, and washed out roads through his barrio. I could tell by the size and complexity of the houses that this must have been a wealthy suburb of El Salvador at one time which has since been ravaged by war and neglect. The house that Mauricio led me too was completely overgrown and there was even part of a tree which had been dragged across the narrow entrance to the property to conceal it. We squeezed our bikes through the underbrush and rode right into a large foyer with some chairs, tables and hammocks. While I dismounted and unloaded my gear so I could ride back and grab Tans on the highway, Mauricio told me a bit about his operation here. Like the other properties, this used to be a large mansion owned by a wealthy El Salvadorean family. The foyer that we were in was at least 2,000 sq.ft. It may have been enclosed at one time but the walls were gone now except for some crude cobb and pop bottle partitions built by previous volunteers. There were no windows left, just mosquito screen pulled across some of the openings. I didn’t see much of a garden, just the jungle closing in around us on all sides. I wasn’t sure if Mauricio owned the property or if he was just squatting. He told me that he had spent many years in LA but like many El Salvadoreans, was extradited after the war. He was short and muscular, spoke perfect English and had tattoo sleeves running down both arms. He explained that he runs the farm as a refuge for lost boys – children either abandoned or orphaned during the war, or just those who need guidance and companionship. They take advantage of the large property, which judging by the patio stones and empty swimming pool had once been manicured – now returned to jungle, to grow and harvest food. Mauricio teaches English and other subjects to the boys. He teaches them to cook, how to farm and how to be self-sufficient. Obviously an important proficiency for lads without family in a country with few jobs.

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When I returned with Tanya on the back of my bike about an hour later, Maurico led us to the only available indoor room. It was pretty filthy, but Tanya and I felt we could roll up in our sleeping bags and make do. The other option was to sleep in the hammocks outside but we were afraid of being ravaged by the mosquitos and catching dengue. We stowed our bags in the room and wandered around to the open kitchen out back to help Mauricio’s girlfriend, Gloria, and about 8 teenage boys make dinner. We were genuinely excited to learn how to make traditional papusas and the boys were very sweet as they patiently showed us the ropes. Just as soon as we had finished a great communal meal, there was a booming crack from above and the heavens opened up a deluge upon us. We were thankful for the mostly waterproof awning jutting out from the house and just covering our table. As we cleared and washed up the dishes together, we were fixated at the extreme amount of water that was just teeming of the edge of the rolled, plastic roof. One more reason to make sure I didn’t get stuck riding at night in El Salvador. Tanya and I retired to our cockroach infested room and huddle together on our filthy mattress with all our limbs completely contained in our sleeping bags. As we were drifting off to sleep we listened to Mauricio counsel the boys on what is was to be a man, earn a living, and take care of their future families. The farm may not have been the Hyatt Regency, but at least these young men were learning some good lessons seemingly not bequeathed very often to vulnerable young men in post war-ravaged El Salvador. We were happy they had Mauricio and Gloria looking after them, feeding them and raising them the best they could. It made forgetting about the repellent, scurrying roaches a little bit easier.

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The next day after breakfast we helped out on the farm. We were both surprised to see how many species of food were actually growing in the overgrown jungle landscape. From a distance, the whole yard looked extremely unkempt and natural. But when we started poking around we saw the amount of work that had gone into this Jurassic garden. There were edible plants and roots all over the ground, vegetables hidden under the soil and a multitude of fruit in the trees. Our first job was to cut down a huge bushel of bananas that were just about ripe and were threatening to pull the whole tree over. This was made somewhat more challenging and terrifying after the discovery of a huge hornets nest that had been constructed right beside our bounty. Mauricio, myself and one of the boys gingerly sawed off part of the truck and carried it and the dangling nest a safe distance away. No casualties thankfully. I then climbed up the rickety ladder to support the colossal load of bananas as Mauricio cut through the stem. They fell into my arms with a jolt and I was just barely able to climb down the few rungs to the ground before the weight became too much. Together we carried them back to the house and hung them from a beam to ripen further from green to yellow. Mauricio then instructed me to chop down the rest of the cellulose-filled trunk a foot or two at a time with a machete until only the truck remained. Apparently this is how you harvest bananas. When the tree grows up from the ground once again in about 4-6 months, there will be another bushel of bananas ready for consumption. Cool. Check that off the bucket list. Next we transplanted some cashew trees which had been started from seedlings, from their pots into the ground. Each tree we learned produces just one nut. No wonder they are so expensive to buy in stores. We also gathered up some yams and other tubers for the lunchtime soup. I stumbled upon another root which I took to be ginger. I tore off a piece and brought it over to show Tanya. She also thought it was ginger although we were surprised that it didn’t have the normal fragrant odour. When Mauricio walked over and saw us handling the root, he immediately told us to put it down and wash our hands. Apparently this wasn’t ginger at all but a particularly poisonous root of some type of weed. Very glad I didn’t decide to taste some of it. Our gardening duties done for the day, we ate a quick lunch, thanked Mauricio, Gloria and the lads for their hospitality and got ready to make our way to the capital city of San Salvador. It would have been nice to stay a little longer, but we couldn’t bare another night sharing our slumber with the roaches.

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T:  Mauricio’s property was situated a ten minute off-road motorcycle ride from the highway… basically in the middle of nowhere. Tough to depart from via the local bus system. When we left on our way to San Salvador, Erik loaded me and my backpack onto the bike and drove me to the highway, where I was expecting to wait awhile for a bus into the city. Erik, waiting with me, spotted a truck pulled over nearby so he ran up to find out where they were headed and scored me a ride into the city. It was my first time hitching on the trip. They were a perfectly nice Christian family and a solid choice in a city with a scary rep and hideously packed buses. I sat in the back with the young son and chatted with the family in my best Spanish. I felt like they were honestly thrilled that they could offer their help to a traveler. They dropped me at the inner city terminal and pointed me in the direction of the appropriate bus stop, handing me a slip of paper with their email and phone number in case I needed anything during my stay. The preconception I had of El Salvador was fading quickly… well, up until the point that the bus pulled out of the terminal. Not necessarily the same sweet, welcoming feeling I had with the family or previous to that on the farm. Peering out the window, the inner-city neighbourhoods of San Salvador were poverty-stricken and ominous, and being a quiet Sunday, the abandoned streets amplified my anxiety. I arrived at my stop, stared at the scribbled address, clutched my pack and prayed I didn’t have to walk far and that my sense of direction – which is famously horrible – was on point today. Randomly, a women sitting next to me offered her assistance to which I was extremely grateful. When the bus halted and I stammered, unsure, she pointed to my piece of paper and held open the bus door while yelling, “venga!”  I followed, and when we got off, she explained that she worked nearby and she would walk me to my hotel, as she feared for my safety in a city once riddled with Mara gang activity. At that moment all the warnings about seemiingly “helpful” people who turn around and rob you, flooded my thoughts. But judging by her nursing uniform and the kindness of the other family earlier, I trusted the stranger and followed her down the street. Turns out that she was lovely and spent half an hour walking in circles with me until I was safely inside the doors of my hotel. Maybe she was late for work, maybe the family drove out of their way to drop me at the bus station and maybe arriving in a city with open arms you shall be received in the similar light.

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After one night in a hotel, Erik and I were lucky enough to be taken in by couchsurfing host Andre, in his decked-out bachelor pad, complete with indoor fountain and fully equipped bar. We were beyond excited to check out what living in a local neighbourhood in supposed ‘dangerous’ San Salvador would be like. At first glance, Andre, was somewhat intimidating. He obviously spends considerable time looking after his physical fitness and could easily have belonged to a mara. He had a striking resemblance to Javier Bardem’s character (Anton Chigurh)  from No Country For Old Men in both appearance and speech. However, he proved to be an exceptional host with a huge heart, handing out beers upon our arrival and calling up his best friend, a lively character named Paco, to come over and help us locate a bar where we could watch Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. Despite the fact that we were in Central America, we sort of assumed The Stanley Cup would still be on television at one bar or another, but of course, nothing is ever easy in this part of the world. After getting shut down at a couple local bars we visited, the guys suggested an all-American classic in the heart of downtown San Salvador. They drove us to kitsch bar called Bennigans, where it’s always Saint Patty’s day, where green beers are on tap and all the servers sport leprechaun hats. Seriously? This is where all the Salvadorean men break the bank to take women they really want to impress. It definitely wasn’t cheap even by Vancouver standards, but we indulged in some amazing meals and a few Stella Artois while the Blackhawks took the cup. We were, in fact, the only people in the entire packed restaurant watching the game – a completely surreal experience for a couple of Canadians but definitely nice to watch some hockey, all the same.

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El Rosario Cathedral in San Salvador

El Rosario Cathedral in San Salvador

Paco, known by his mother as Francisco, rounded out our group for the rest of our stay, providing lots of comic relief and random El Salvadorean facts. The guys took us to the best papusa joints, dive bars and even talked Erik out of playing pool with Maras (which he was a little sore about.) They drove us along the famous Ruta de Las Flores to a stunning town called Ahuachapan, more than an hour out of the city. El Salvador stretches a mere 300km in length and the guys did their best to give us the grand tour. The four of us geared up one morning to hike one of many volcanoes, from the top of which you could basically see the entire country. Volcan Izalco wasn’t our first choice, but it was the one we ended up climbing. Santa Ana, a larger more popular volcano complete with crater lake was our goal, but unfortunately, to reach its summit, one must pass through a number of private properties and submit to each individual land owners fees. That, and the entrance fee is set at almost double what you pay to climb Izalco. When faced with our scoffs, the guides just shrugged their shoulders and stared back at us. All these random taxes seemed a bit much, plus, there was the mandatory accompaniment of two armed police officers (who, of course, came with a price tag of their own). This, we learnt is for good reason as several years ago a couple of young female tourists went unguarded and became victims to extremely unpleasant crimes.  So, with guards, guide and new friends in tow, we hiked the Izalco Volcano in a few hours and took in the incredible views beneath us. A beautiful, peaceful place to view the breathtaking landscape. For a country that we had once considered skipping completely, our experience in El Salvador were a far cry from the violent stereotype we had expected. Time and time again, hospitality and genuine good intentions cracked through gruff and rugged first impressions.

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See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil.  Three barachos in Ahuachapan.

See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil. Three barachos in Ahuachapan.

E: Our few days in San Salvador were interesting to say the least. It is a brash and gritty city, not for the faint of heart. San Salvadoreans are very stare-y and even when a smile is offered, one is seldom returned. This was the first place on our trip where we had a real hard time relating to the locals. Many seem to be in a trance. They don’t flinch when dogs start barking or fighting right next to them. They walk down the middle of the road and don’t bother to turn around when they hear a car or bus barreling down upon them from behind. The downtown core is reminiscent to the zombie mentality found on East Hasting is Vancouver. Even more accurately, the last time I have come across a society of people with such seemingly blank, empty stares was in Cambodia. Both cultures have recently suffered grisly atrocities and I suppose not enough time has yet passed for the memories to pass out of the collective psyche. However beyond the hard edge and dangerous reputation, we had a very nice time in El Salvador. We spent a day wandering around the hectic main plaza with it dilapidated church and the annoying buses wizzying around in every direction blowing huge plumes of thick black smoke (most unpleasant on the highway when you are trying to pass one…. or seventy.) We found a nice modern art gallery, MARTE, in the north of the city and were treated to an incredible Salvador Dali exhibit based on Dante’s Divine Comedy as well as haunting photos from El Salvador’s civil war. We enjoyed a pizza lunch sitting on the grass next to a mall parking lot with many groups of El Salvadoreans taking advantage of the same tiny piece of greenery in this asphalt covered metropolis.

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After departing San Salvi, we stopped at a small colonial town called Suchitoto which we’d heard good things about. The main attraction was Los Tercios waterfall composed of large hexagonal columns of rock. The pictures looked amazing but after a twenty minute moto ride and half hour hike down into a steep ravine, we discovered the tiniest trickle of water dripping down the face. It was still a very impressive looking wall and was fun to climb. After returning to the town, we found a nice walking path leading down towards the lake. There were absolutely no people on the path which we thought was strange as we were so close to town. When we neared the bottom of the path we came to a small suspension bridge over the river mouth and realized why we hadn’t seen any people. On the anchorage tower, in black spray paint were the letters “MS”. This told me we were about to cross into Mara territory. I was, of course, aware of the Mara Salvatrucha-13 knowing them to be the largest and most ferocious street gang in the world. Staying with Oscar, an El Salvadorean refuge, when I was in Phoenix, he told me the chances of running into Mara (which means gang) was about 20%. These weren’t great odds considering their reputation. The gang originated in Los Angeles and is made up mostly of El Salvadoreans, Hondurans and Guatemalans that immigrated or slipped into the US during and after the Central American civil wars. Looking over to the other side of the bridge, we didn’t see any activity and we knew we needed to cross to make it to the lake. There wasn’t a soul anywhere around. The far bank of the river was strewn with garbage, clothes and beat up furniture. It was an eerie feeling walking across the bridge not knowing if this area was still an active gang stronghold. I admit I was angst-ridden but I didn’t want to be intimidated by some graffitti after having invested an hour of walking. Images from the movie Sin Nombre kept flashing through my mind. It turned out the path to the lake was completely grown over and we couldn’t find an alternate route. We were both relieved to turn back, as there were dozens more MS signs on trees and rocks all around us. Our last couchsurfing host, Andre had told us that two years ago, many of the leaders of the MS-13 that had been deported from the United States were all being held at a prison outside San Salvador. According to Andre, there was a fire which razed the entire prison and every prisoner perished. Of course there was wide speculation that the fire was set deliberately by the guards perhaps at the urging of the El Salvadorean and/or US Governments. We didn’t know if this was even true or if it had diminished the activity of the Maras in El Salvador but we were certainly relieved when we made it back to the sleepy town on the top of the hill and were safely back inside our guesthouse. The next day we would be on our way to Honduras.

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Yes... those are automatic weapons reborn as art in El Salvador.

Yes… those are automatic weapons reborn as art at an eatery in Suchitoto.

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Comalapa

20130612-DSC_0359E: San Juan Comalapa is a mountain town in the department of Chimaltenango. When I was in Palenque, I considered buying mushrooms from an English guy named Shane who told me about a place in Guatemala where he’d volunteered building a school out of tires. Naturally I was intrigued and after a quick Google search discovered the organization, called Long Way Home, based in these mountains. So after a successful mission to Guatemala City to get a new shock for my bike and recover a package sent from home that had been sitting in the Guate Correo for 50 days, I made my way to Comalapa. The ride in was absolutely breathtaking. The Guatemala highlands is made up of many gorges which are a pain in the ass to cross but afford magnificent miradors (vistas.) Everywhere in this region, even on the steepest slopes, are neat farmer’s fields and fruit trees. Being the start of rainy season, the remarkably straight rows of crops were a brilliant green and all the flowers were in bloom. Although the road did not appear steep, there must have been a constant elevation gain, as Comalapa sits at 6,000 ft above sea level. When I rode into town, I tried to find the barrio of Paxsun where the school was, but it was already getting late in the day. I could see the circadian storm clouds gathering overhead and figured it was better to find a hotel than keep riding about the countryside. This turned out to be no easy task as, like the streets, the hotels in this town don’t have any signage. Comalapa is pretty far off the beaten path so I suppose they don’t get a huge amount of visitors here. As it turned out, most of the hotels are actually guestrooms in local people’s houses. The first two homestays I was led to by some helpful locals didn’t have anyone at home and, with the thunder claps becoming more frequent, I was getting a bit anxious. A local traffic cop directed me to a third option a bit outside the town center. This place actually had a sign… and a bar even. Hostal Don Catarina would become my home for the night. I checked in, parked my bike in the front foyer and wandered back into the town. Of course the center of town is monopolized by a giant church and plaza and a collection of random shops dotting the perimeter. Although there were many food stalls serving elote, empanadas, pupusas and a cream-based soup with bull testicles and black beans, after a tiring ride, I was in the mood for a proper sit down meal. Like the hotel, this became surprising hard to procure. I walked in all four directions from the square, asking locals if they could point out a restaurante. Although it was approaching 5pm, I found two restaurants, a tiny hole in the wall called Adobe which was closed (maybe forever) and a pizza place, which had the metal front door shutter also closed and locked. There was actually only one single restaurant option within a good 30 block radius. Café de Plaza was a small windowless restaurant, sparsely decorated with six tables. The wall hangings included some Mickey and Minnie Christmas hangings and a replica print of the last supper in calendar form. There were also some festive construction paper chains draped from the ceiling. Of course I was the only customer, the cost of a meal here being 30 Quetzales ($4) and the average daily wage in town being, well, 30 Quetzales, I wasn’t expecting a massive assembly. I was thankful for the overcooked chicken cutlet, rice and beans and wondered if an authentic Guatemalan Highlands restaurant with a similar ambience could survive in Vancouver. I wondered if I opened a restaurant with concrete block walls, a few plastic tables and chairs and a menu consisting of six mains:  three chicken and three pork cuts paired with rice, beans and tortillas would draw much of a crowd. Of course for it to be a true Guatemalan experience, the cost of a meal would be set at $180 CDN, comparative to the wage of the average Guatemalan.

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The next day, I was forced awake at 6:00 am by the echoing footfalls of the hotel manager on the concrete slab and Mexican cowboy music coming from another room down the hall. Although it would seem that rural Guatemalans lack consideration in situations like this, I have been told that they just have a much higher tolerance for noise than we do. Of course I couldn’t get back to sleep so I got up, had a lukewarm shower and set off on my bike to find the school. I was told by the night boy at the hotel to ask for La Casa de las Llantas (The House of Tires). I managed to find the property where the employees and volunteers of Long Way Home stayed. It was pretty rustic and I was glad for my basic yet clean and enclosed hotel room. I walked through a gate into a covered enclosure and found three girls sitting in a circle eating cereal. Two of them had dreadlocks and all three looked like they had been surviving off sink showers for more than a few days. They were cheerful enough though and pointed me to another wooden building up the hill a ways where they said I could find Ben, the volunteer coordinator whom I had communicated with over e-mail. Apparently this second building is where the employees of Long Way Home live. It was decidedly more upscale than the volunteer quarters although also made from wood planks and cobb foundations although containing less holes. There were about a half dozen people already up and atom and just getting ready to hike over to the school site. I was greeted by Ben, a super affable ex-real estate broker from Los Angeles, who became unreasonably excited about the high-end motorcycle helmet in my hand. Ben rides bikes back home and being in the highlands of Guatemala for the past 3 years has caused him miss his bike to a fairly noticeable degree. I also met another girl with dreadlocks who introduced herself as Genevieve. I recognized her from my initial e-mail contact with the group and remembered she was in charge of fundraising for LWH. Everyone was super friendly and while they finished getting ready they gave me a quick overview of the organization. Long Way Home was started by a peace corp volunteer three years previously after he had completed a two year term but was invited by the townspeople to stay on. He purchased a several acre piece of land on the edge of town for $12,000 and set about utilizing natural building practices to build a school. LWH now have six full time staff from the US who pay themselves $5 per day. There are also a host of volunteers that come for different durations and are asked to pay $75 per week to help with the construction and learn about natural building techniques. Ben told me that they often receive groups, either college classes or churchy types, who pay $600 per week per person to come and visit the farm. Food, lodging, and tours of the area are provided for the groups, so in all, it is not too expensive for visitors from North America or Europe taking 2-3 weeks off. At the present there were six independent volunteers working at the site. The organization also employees six fulltime Guatemalan construction staff. They are paid slightly better than the regular construction wage in the area and are often taken to different projects, even outside Guatemala, to utilize the skills they have learned in this field.

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Christian Propagandists

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Found this at the house of an artist. Interesting that Guatemalans would welcome any member of the Bush family.

Found this at the house of an artist. Interesting that Guatemalans would welcome any member of the Bush family.

Ben spent the entire morning with me and gave me the greatest tour. After securing my bike inside the enclosure, the two of us set of into the fields through the morning mist. We waved and greeted the indigenous farmers or their silhouettes as they began their daily work of tending the crops. It was a perfect day although it was already starting to get humid at 7am. We slowly made our way up a rise and at the top we turned back to survey the maze of connected fields we had just walked through. Much like the ride up to Comalapa, this was some of the most exquisite scenery I had seen on my trip. For this reason alone I was glad I had decided to come. A little ways further, Ben pointed out the outline of the school building in the distance. It was quite large and seemed to encapsulate several buildings. Ben told me that the school had opened two years ago and as the group completed different buildings the enrollment grew. At present there are 94 children from the surrounding area receiving their education here. As well as construction, LWH also funds the operation and instruction through their donations. Along with the main building which comprises three classrooms, the organizations office, and an apartment, the site also includes a separate classroom in the shape of a mushroom for the pre-school aged children, a block of four composting toilets and a tool crib and office for the construction personnel. I have to admit I was completely in awe as we wandered onto the site. The land is quite large, several acres at least, but is sloped and situated on the back side of the town, hence the cheap price. To create a somewhat flat footprint to construct the structures, the group had to level some of the land and did so by building a retaining wall completely out of discarded tires filled with earth. This wall ran the entire length of the property and was extremely impressive. Ben told me that just this component took six months straight to complete. Even more impressive was the huge subterranean cistern also made completely with large truck tires and backfilled with earth. To complete this project concrete will be poured along the walls to make the basin water tight. The price tag on this is $8,000 and the construction is therefore stalled pending funding.

Ben, ex-real estate broker from Los Angeles

Ben, ex-real estate broker from Los Angeles

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The Cistern... I guess this is while villagers call it the House of Tires.

The Cistern… I guess this is while villagers call this place the House of Tires.

Composting Toilets

Composting Toilets

Some of my fellow volunteers.

Some of my fellow volunteers.

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As we got to the edge of the site, Ben pointed out an unfinished cobb and bamboo structure that had been designed and constructed by an visiting architecture class from a US college. The students had come to observe and learn from the techniques being utilized here and they offered to fund and construct a building of their own. The roof trusses were especially interesting utilizing nothing but thick bamboo poles, twine, tie-wire and a few double headed nails. Once complete the students had poured a 5” thick smooth concrete roof on top to show the strength of the support structure, I suppose, and they coved the outside edges to create a rainwater collection system as well. The walls were cobb with glass bottles throughout to add strength and they had also added plastic bottles which I hadn’t seen before. As a way to help further reduce the solid waste in the community, LWH collect all the plastic bags, candy wrappers, chip and cookie bags and push them into the plastic bottles with a piece of rebar, Then they screw the cap back on and voila, you have a non-compressible building element which acts the same as the glass bottles. Later in the day Ben took me into town for some food and we detoured over to see the town dump. Walking along a street with a big wall on one side, we eventually came to a break in the wall (with no barricade) and looked over the side into a massive pit about 200 feet deep and even larger in diameter. This used to be a natural river valley but has now been completely covered in decades of the town’s garbage. Considering its location right in the center of town, you can imagine the danger to the town’s water supply. Part of the program is to educate the community on how to reduce their solid waste. Some of the staff and volunteers give presentations in the town to educate people about the problems of solid waste and how they can reduce and reuse. At the site Long Way Home have arranged a number of bins for glass bottles, small plastic bottles, large plastic bottles, solid waste, and as many tires as they can get their hands on. They have even made excursions to nearby towns to collect all the used tires they can find. Sometimes they offer neighbourhood kids a few Quetzales to collect and bring to the site all the glass bottles they can scavenge around town.

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For lunch Ben took me for bull testicle soup, but instead we ate pupusas!

For lunch Ben took me for bull testicle soup, but instead we ate pupusas!

Beautiful natural gulley!

Beautiful natural gulley!

Otherwise known, for decades, as the Comalapa Dump.

Otherwise known, for decades, as the Comalapa Dump.

The foreman at the site, a guy around my age named Adam with a big beard and a patient demeanour, is the brains behind the majority of the construction. He has been working in Guatemala on natural construction projects for the past 10 years. Whoa!!! I really took a shine to him and enjoyed watching how he ran both the Guatemalan workers as well as the less experienced volunteers. He was also appreciative, I think, to have me helping on site as I had done this type of work before. They were in the process of building two gigantic earthbag structures approximately 25 feet tall. It was an enormous undertaking considering how labour intensive this type of constructive is. Adam confided in me that he was unlikely to try such a large structure with earthbags again. He said that the first school building had been made with tires and went up about four times quicker. Just looking at the size of the two massive bee hive shaped edificios, I was concerned about the structural stability, especially in an earthquake prone area such as the highlands. At one point when I went into the office to grab some tools, I saw Adam poring over an AutoCAD draught of the buildings with all the dimensions. We he walked me through it and explained the tight tolerances he was following and the factor of safety it made more sense to me. I have to say I was blown away to see he was using AutoCAD. This site was the real deal. I was also especially taken with how well the finished structures had been beautified. Although the base structure is made from old tires, discarded bottles, cobb, and trash, the finished structures are clean, colourful and possess some pretty incredible artwork. Many of the female volunteers who aren’t giddy about heavy construction work have contributed to the decoration. Also, the local people and children, essentially the end users, have been invited to work on the finishes of their new buildings.

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Adam from Philadelphia, the brains behind the design and construction.

Adam from Philadelphia, the brains behind the design and construction.

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The Toolshed

The Toolshed

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Site Super's Office. Nicer than a trailer.

Site Super’s Office. Nicer than a trailer.

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After work was done for the day, Ben caught up with me and took me a few blocks into town to show me some Earthships that had been built by the crew of Mike Reynolds, the esteemed Garbage Warrior. I couldn’t stop myself from enthusiastically boasting to Ben that I knew all about the Garbage Warrior and was a huge fan. Tanya had put me onto him when she insisted we watch his 2007 documentary a few months into our relationship. http://www.garbagewarrior.com/about I thought it was utterly spectacular and it has remained an inspiration for me. There is a large community of people who have built or are building houses with natural and recycled materials in Taos , New Mexico, where Mike Reynolds has been battling the state legislature to change their traditional building codes. He has labeled these structures Earthships and defines them: Earthship n. 1. passive solar home made of natural and recycled materials 2. thermal mass construction for temperature stabilization. 3. renewable energy & integrated water systems create an off-grid home with little to no utility bills. LWH invited Mike Richards’ construction crew to Guatemala and paid them to construct an Earthship to gain the skills and knowhow in order to duplicate the feat. The first home they gave to a single mother with five children to look after. They also built a small shed in the back for her loom as she works as a weaver. At presentl, the LWH crew are building a second Earthship for staff housing.

'Earthship' built by Mike Reynolds crew

‘Earthship’ built by Mike Reynolds crew

LWH's first house

LWH’s first house

The finished school in operation

The finished school in operation

Current enrollment is 94 children.

Current enrollment is 94 children.

The Pre-school

The Pre-school

I really liked the people I met while working with Long Way Home, from the staff, volunteers, the local tradesman and even all the people that I met in town. It was inspiring to see so many smart people who believe in this method of construction and the many benefits. The dedication from some of the staff who have worked here full time for so many years, essentially spending a good portion of their lives helping this community and furthering the science of this type of construction made me feel very humbled. I met one gentleman in his 50’s from Oregon who had volunteered with LWH in the past and was back again for another month. He told me he’s retired and his wife is still working so he likes to come down here and help out for spurts. He said that he’d worked abroad for many years mostly in the Panama Canal as a crane operator.  He raised two of his kids abroad and two in the states and he confided that seeing how they turned out, he wished he’d raised them all in the developing world. This cracked me up. Hell, I wish I’d grown up living in lots of exotic places. But mostly I was roused by this group because they are really onto something. Not only are they providing housing, school buildings, education, employment, waste reduction and donations to this one community, they are also pioneering a technology that can be used the world over. The proof of this program’s success is the staff that have been here for years at a time and the volunteers clamouring to be involved. My hat off to Long Way Home and best wishes for much continued success.

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Lake Atitlan

We took a few day trips to various communities around the Lake. Sololá was one of our favourite places. It is the busy capital of the Departmento (Province) and was situated up a long, snaking road overlooking the lake and its three cone-shaped volcanoes. Despite being an extremely busy hub, the town has some beautiful old buildings and there are indigenous people in traditional dress sauntering around everywhere. We loved sitting outside the pizza place on the main square and just watching the colourful populace go about their day to day business. People were exceptionally friendly probably because, unlike the more touristic towns right on the lake, there we no tourists to speak of in Sololá. We were especially enamoured with the hilltop cemetery and its pastel coloured crypts. Another notable settlement, in the opposite direction from Panaj, had just one road in and out. I had spotted this charming little hamlet looking down from what Rudhy referred to as the ‘hot road’ when I first arrived on my bike in Lake Atitlan. The ‘cold road’ lying within the valley on the other side of the mountain range provides a more direct and much faster path to the Lake from Guatemala City but is in the shadows of the mountains and doesn’t give the  same exquisite views. We discovered the name of this town was Santa Catarina Palopo when we passed through on a Mayan Families food run. It was one of those really enchanting picturesque places that you don’t come across very often but never forget. Cute, white stucco houses with red tin roofs inched down the slope toward the lake. Rows of neatly, stepped terraces above the house line was where the community grew it’s food. There is one road which occasionally has a truck driving along it carrying crops or supplies. It takes less than ten minutes to walk through town but every person you see will wave hello. Lakeside, there are well-used trampolines which the kids pay a couple coins to jump on. When we carried in the baskets of food, we stumbled into a preschool class. Upon receiving the food donations the teacher led her young students in singing ‘Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ in Spanish to say thank you. Beyond cute! It was a good day.

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Another town we visited just 10 minutes boat ride along the shore from Panaj was called Santa Cruz La Laguna. This place we dubbed the ‘Town of Children.’ After a cruelly steep hike up an embankment to a mountain ledge which housed the township, we walked around for an hour. There wasn’t much here at all beyond some modest mud houses, a town square and a crumbling concrete school. During the entire walk we saw only a handful of old women, but a huge number of children. There were groups of children playing in the square, bands of five and six children romping along the trails leading up into the mountains and toddlers who would run out from their houses to see who these tall white people were. Without exaggeration, I think we saw only two men;  a very old man carrying some seedlings up into the mountains and one man with his wife and son building a fence outside their house. It was strangely eerie. We knew that it was very common for Guatemalan men to bear many children and then abandon the women but this was preposterous. We very much hoped that the men of the village were all working in one of the larger towns or that they were in tribal council or something. It was fun playing and goofing around the kids but you had to wonder who was looking after them all.

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We were extremely excited to hear that our old friends Jayne and Phil were heading our way to take a week of Spanish lessons at a school in San Pedro, the bohemian, party town across the lake. We made plans to meet up on the weekend and Tanya and I took the 40 minute lancha ride across to San Pedro. During our hike up the steep hill to the meeting place suggested by our friends, Tanya spotted a used clothing store highly recommended by a girl we knew in Panaj. We went in and were enthralled at all the fashionable (and proper-sized!) clothes for sale. There are many budget travelers that pass through San Pedro which I suppose explains the volume of clothes available. This was an absolute treat. The store was owned by a girl from Switzerland who used the proceeds to run yet another educational outreach for indigenous women. It seems every ex-pat or long-term stayer around Lake Atitlan either runs their own humanitarian organization, volunteers with or works for one. Tanya emerged from the store with a super sex pair of skinny blue jeans shorts and a nice lavender blouse and I snagged a huge pair of white cargo shorts which were desperately needed. My old shorts were either torn to shreds or had some unidentifiable rusty red stains on them. Total expenditure: $10!

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Jayne and Phil rucked up to the Church plaza while I was getting my boots polished. I hadn’t actually wanted my boots polished but I was tired of running away from the two 11 year old entrepreneurs who kept setting themselves upon my feet. Finally I just ignored them and continued chatting to Tanya and away they went with their brushes and polish. I was a bit aghast when I finally glanced down and saw that my boots were no longer flat brown but shiny maroon. Well shit, they’d be completely beat up again in a couple weeks anyway. When the boys were finished we got down to negotiating a price. As usual, their ask was ridiculous but since I hadn’t wanted a shine and since they had already completed the work, they didn’t have much leverage. I got them to agree to 15 Quetzals or $2. I figured this was still expensive by local standards but they were cute kids and, hell, there were two of them that had to share the revenue. I gave them a 20 Quetzal note and put my hand out for my change. Instantly both kids grabbed their shine kits and bolted across the church square. I yelled abuse at them, in a half-joking way, amid the laughter of the local people looking on from around the perimeter of the square. Just then Phil and Jayne wandered up. We greeted and hugged and they asked what was going on. I told them I’d just been fleeced by a couple shine kids and Phil immediately looked down to inspect my boots. He reported crossly that they hadn’t even applied the polish down to the sole and hadn’t brushed it in well at all. He couldn’t believe I’d been taken for 20Q and told me the going rate for a shine here was only 5Q. He was indignant on my behalf and told me to keep an eye open for the little bandits and we’d shake them down. I love Phil for this. He understands the inherent cultural value of honouring the local economy. Tourists who ultimately just pay the asking price are unwittingly making it harder for other travelers who are perhaps more money conscious and want to negotiate a fairer price. It also convinces locals to target travelers and makes us the victims of constant harassment from hustlers and cheats. That is why we get ambushed at third world train stations and markets because so many people so easily part with their money for stupidly inflated prices. I’ve been to countries where venders don’t even serve locals and taxi’s don’t stop for non-whites because of the increased profit they make off us. When we travel with Jayne and Phil, we are comfortable knowing they will immediately walk out of a restaurant with us, if we’re being offered inflated prices. But as far as the shine kids went, I was happy to part with a couple dollars, if nothing else than to witness Phil’s outrage.  (-;

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Yeah. Bring it pequeñito!

Yeah.    Bring it Pequeñito!

It was a hot day and we deemed it necessary to celebrate our reunion by getting day drunk. We grabbed some Brahvas from the store and wandered around exchanging stories about our experiences in Rio Dulce and Guatemala City. Phil and Jayne had also failed to see the famed Semuc Champey because it was completely flooded when they attempted to visit, which apparently happens every year during the rainy season. We came across a basketball court in a main square which was teeming with people. Phil and I got schooled by a couple extremely talented yet diminutive 14 year old boys in two-on-two while oblivious townspeople ambled across the court. After a boozy pizza lunch including an ill-fated arm-wrestling completion (ill-fated for the Davidsons anyway, heh heh) we made our way to a popular bar while sipping a sweet Jamaica liquor that Jayne magically procured from her pocket. By the time we found the somewhat hidden bar we were already feeling pretty smashed, and discovered to our delight/horror that this particular establishment offered a free shot with every drink purchased. A tequila was shot, chased by a Moza, an ounce of whiskey, then 12 ounces of Gallo, a hit of rum followed by more rum and maybe a splash of cola. We were getting very drunk, very quickly for very little money.

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Jesus Bath Towel!!!

Jesus Bath Towel!!!

Things started to get a bit fuzzy for your narrator at this point, but I distinctly remember Tanya and Phil naked in the pool taking turns paddling around in a small rubber dinghy while the less drunk patrons in the bar watched on. I remember being inspired to try and salvage some memories of this epic night for future reference and walked around the pool to get some photos. Armed with my precious blackmail material, I made my way back to my seat at the bar but was still howling at the nudes instead of watching where I was stumbling. My foot caught a chair leg and I performed what was described by everyone afterwards as an extremely graceful headfirst tumble into the pool. As I surfaced with sobering surprise, I heard Tanya scream, “My camera!” I reached into my pocket and immediately retrieved the camera and held it as high as possible out of the water. I’m sure that everyone, despite our acute states of inebriation, realized that it was too late. Phil warned not to turn on the camera but despite putting the camera in a bowl of rice for a week when we got home with the battery and card hatches open, she never did come back to life. It was a hard loss for us, but was really our only major miscarriage of the trip so far (motorcycle repairs not-withstanding) and it came with a pretty hilarious story so we accepted our karma and Tanya accepted my shitty spare camera for the interim. The night didn’t end here, of course;  the foolishness and debauch taking us to many more locales and into further interactions which for the sake of good taste I will not delve into here. I’ll reveal that it did culminate in the demise of yet another pair of size 13 sandals and a lifetime of running jokes amongst the four of us.

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Panajachel

We had been targeting Lake Atitlan for a while as a place to settle down for a few weeks and take a break from the road. We knew we were ready to stand still, write, mend our ripped clothing and un-kink our travel weary bodies. The communities around the lake are well known for offering some of the most affordable Spanish instruction in Central America. We had also heard good things from other travelers who had visited.  Aldous Huxley called Lake Atitlan, the most beautiful lake in all the world after a visit in the 1950’s. The Lonely Planet says that there are numerous towns around the lake all offering a different vibe. The first town we arrived at was Panajachel which is the main hub and where most tourists alight. The Lonely Planet says that most travelers just pass through here and then base themselves in one of the smaller communities. We actually found Panajachel to be a great place to chill out. There are heaps of long term ex-pats in Panaj and most of the volunteer organizations are based here. Our Couchsurfing host, Bethany, a teacher from Atlanta, spends a few months in Panaj each year with her 8 year old son, Seth. Like many westerners that we met in Panaj, Bethany ran her own not-for-profit helping educate indigenous women. She knew all the ex-pats in town and introduced us to the who’s who of Panaj during the few days we stayed with her. Bethany took us to trivia night at the Palapa, the local ex-pat bar where we met the owner, Zondra, a chain-smoking alcoholic, self-proclaimed yoga teacher. We got a bit rowdy our first night in town and we were surprised at how little it took to get the owner up dancing on the bar with us. In Pana, the ex-pats joke that they all have a few screws loose, and that they do. We also got to know Coco, the sociable, ‘sometimes bartender’ at Palapa. He could talk knowledgeably about Guatemalan politics, basketball, and current events. He had a good grasp of the world unlike most Guatemalans we’d met and his English was excellent. Surprisingly, he also played rugby with a team located in Xela, the second-largest city in Guatemala about an hour from Panaj. 20130515-DSC_978120130610-DSC_021120130516-IMG_488920130515-IMG_4837

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Coco!!!

Coco!!!

We struck gold our first few days in Panaj, when we met Karin, a close friend of Bethany’s. Karin is Guatemalan (although grew up in the States) and her family was one of the first in Panajachel. She lives alone in a beautiful home on Calle Frutales, a very wide, quiet street bordering the river; perhaps the only street in Panaj not dominated by furious and chaotic vehicle traffic. Karin seemed a bit of a recluse and chose to live in a one room apartment on the side of the compound. This left the main house unoccupied. When Bethany explained that we we were looking to stay in town for a month or two and wanting to do volunteer work, Karin graciously offered that we could stay at her home, “at our pleasure.” We weren’t exactly sure what this cryptic axiom meant but we were over the moon to have such a lovely and comfortable place to live and play house for a while. The finest feature of the property was the spacious courtyard connecting our house to Karen’s side. Tall hardwood beams rose up to a translucent roof. Better yet, Karen opened up this space to the town’s resident yoga teacher to hold her classes. Thus, three days of the week, we merely had to walk out of our font door to do our yoga practice. We were beyond delighted at all the shelving so that we could have all our possessions at the ready and not have to dig around in our packs to locate something we needed. There was also a lovely caretaker named Alejandro who looked after us, fixed things when required, arranged to have the gas canister replaced (by a company that also delivered fresh bread with their gas), and helped us with our Spanish. We did take a few Spanish classes, but the young teacher that we poached from the Spanish school, Gato, had a difficult time making it to the lessons. Gato (called such by his friends because of his unusual glassy green eyes) had dreams of opening up a movie theatre in town. I thought this was a great idea as there isn’t much for entertainment after dark other than eating and drinking. Gato was actively arranging his second illegal expedition to the US via coyote to join his brother in California. His initial foray, he’d found work in Texas but it ultimately didn’t work out too well. He told us about the first time he saw snow and tried to catch it on his tongue as it floated through the window into his cell at the immigration holding complex.

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Both Tanya and I were decidedly sick of tacos and other weird street food and extremely eager to make use of the large, well-appointed kitchen. Relying on tacos, chicken skewers, hot dogs, fried chicken and spaghetti bolognese takes its toll (especially on a newly ex-vegetarian – God help me!) and makes one tremendously appreciative of having nutritious food in the refrigerator to consume at any time, day or night, when the desire hits. One of the key reasons for choosing to spend our time in Panaj was the discovery of several ex-pat geared health food stores. The main Commercial Drive-style deli/grocery is called Sandra’s. Inside this marvelous, atypical shop we found a veritable collection of healthy or just familiar foods that aren’t readily available in this part of the world. Almond milk, quinoa, tofu, chia seeds, dill pickles, natural nut butters, balsamic vinegar, artisan mustard, sauerkraut, perogies, various hard cheeses with recognizable names, red wine from countries other than Chile, Argentina and the US. Although we spent way more money eating at home than we would have going out, it was well worth it. There was also a lovely herb garden right outside our front door containing purple basil, rosemary, lavender, cilantro and mint which I would routinely go to pick at the direction of the Missus as she made dinner. We had a couple dinner parties as well which allowed Tanya to showcase her culinary skills (which she always loves) and overall it was just nice to enjoy a regular home life for a while. There were great vegetable markets around Panaj and women would bring down fresh vegetables and fruit from their mountain communities everyday. One lady just sold plums because that is all she had on her property;  one plum tree. We would always try to spread out our money to make sure we didn’t buy all our produce from just one person. We liked to patronage the poorer women who only had a few items for sale.

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Our place also had a wood burning fireplace with a garage full of wood where I was able to park my bike. Being able to warm the house came in extremely handy when we’d be out in the afternoons and the daily rain came soaking our freshly laundered clothes hanging from the lines in the backyard. (And this happened more than a few times.) We could drape or clothes on chairs in the livingroom and hang socks on the mantle piece. Some of the afternoon storms that occurred while we were in Panaj were fierce and would last well into the night. The roof of the house was corrugated metal and the sound of the already pounding rain was thunderous. We liked these evening when we would stay in, cozy up to the fire and drink wine. Some days the booming thunder would start at midday and threaten the arrival of a major storm for several hours… but none would arrive. There was also a claw foot tub in the bathroom of our home in addition to a Spanish-tiled shower. Unfortunately the poor filtration system which funneled the lake water into our home allowed a lot of silt in as well so the bottom of the tub would fill up with an uncomfortable amount of sand and small stones, lessening the enjoyment of having a bath considerably. Our only major complaint about the town was the polluted water from the lake which is the primary water source for all the communities around the lake. The water treatment plant in Panaj had been destroyed by Hurricane Stan in 2010 and none of the other communities had any sort of treatment; all the raw sewage runs straight into the Lake. Many of the residents, Tanya included, complained of stomach ailments from the poor water. Even if you don’t drink it, the impurities still get into your system from cooking, going to restaurants, bathing, etc. Not to mention consuming any fish.

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The Circus a block from our house.

The Circus a block from our house.

One night at the Palapa Bar, waiting for trivia night to begin, I happened to look up at the TV screen and it looked suspiciously as if there was a rugby game on. This has happened at least 37,000 times, the TV catches my eye, I get a glimmer of excitement, and then realize it’s just another stupid soccer match. By this time the little heart flutter no longer emerges, as I’ve gotten so used to the disappointment. However, as I kept looking at the screen, I recognized the faces of some of the players from the Irish national rugby squad. What!?! I grabbed my beer and, like a tornado, ripped across the bar planting myself in front of the TV. There’s actually RUGBY on!!!, I screamed to Tanya, whom I had left dumbly sitting at the table. I continued watching and in complete and utter disbelief, I saw that Ireland was playing none other than Team Canada. Holy Shit! Ireland and Canada had only ever played head to head test matches five times previously. As I looked around the fixture grounds, I realized that the game was being played at BMO field in my hometown of Toronto. Holy Shit, again! I knew that heaps of my friends would be in those stands right now. How did I not know that this game was taking place. Oh- that’s right… I’m in Guatemala. During the game I got to see James Pritchard become Canada’s all-time leading scorer which was a nice milestone to witness. Tanya and I had made dinner plans that evening and Tanya didn’t even bat an eye when I sent her on alone to dinner with my apologies, promising that I would be along as soon as the game ended. I’m glad my girlfriend is finally starting to accept me as I am.    🙂

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Cashew, the local nut salesman.

Cashew, the local nut salesman.

One of the absolute treats of our stay for me was the television in the bedroom which was connected to satellite… and there were basketball playoffs on! After watching the Clips and the Thunder both vanquished in Game 5 at the local bar, I fell onto the Pacers bandwagon when they beat the detestable Heat in Game 1. I faithfully watched every game and looked forward to the telecasts throughout the day. The games were being commentated in Spanish but it was pretty easy to pick up the key words quickly:  puntos (points), rebotes (rebounds), faltas (fouls). Even when the Pacers lost and my two most hated teams were to face off in the Finals, I was already back in the groove and couldn’t stay away. Again, I watched every game of the series, although I wasn’t so much cheering for the Spurs as I was cheering against the Heat. Happily, I was slowly bringing Tanya into the basketball fold and was able to keep her watching the games for entire quarters at a time. I was slowly introducing her to the players and explaining the back stories like LeBron’s move to Miami, the Shaq and Kobe rivalry and, of course, the numerous accomplishments of Michael Jordan, which no other player had or would ever come close to.  I was extremely grateful for her sparkle of interest in one of my sports, as I had not gotten anywhere in piquing her interest in either football or baseball throughout our relationship. I considered her budding interest in basketball as a satisfyingly, hard fought victory.

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We decided to celebrate our 4th date at the most elegant restaurant on the lake called Hotel Atitlan. We spent the afternoon at the nature reserve and coffee finca across the street, then bombed home to get dolled-up for our romantic dinner out. We took a $3 tuk tuk to the restaurant on the outskirts of town owing to the threat of rain. Everyone from the parking attendant, to the guys at the concierge desk, to the bartender and waitress were extraordinarily friendly. Considering the 4th fell on a Tuesday this month and we were well into the rainy season, we had the hotel all to ourselves. (With the exception of the geriatric 90 year old owner dining in another room with four employees constantly hovering around him.) The restaurant had come highly recommended by Bethany and she insisted we must think up an excuse to have dinner here some night. We totally understood her insistence whilst strolling through the botanical gardens and admiring the view of the lake from the Spanish-style patio complete with infinity pool. The decoration of the entire restaurant was exquisite from the hand carved wooden accents, the furniture and table arrangements, to the striking chandeliers. We even found our dream fireplace: a floor to ceiling, stone and brick colossus with a hardwood mantle. Our meal when it arrived was nothing short of fabulous (for Guatemalan standards). I had my first proper steak in more than six years. As we downed several after-dinner drinks, and toasted to our imagined royal status, we decided to play musical chairs and try out a selection of the comfortable-looking and exotic couches and armchairs on hand. The entire hotel was ours after all; why not be as comfortable as possible. The best part of the evening was when the bill arrived and we realized that this entire extravagance had cost less than $60 with drinks and propina (tip)!!! (Ed: A small confession… although we posted a picture from this night with our engagement post on Facebook, this wasn’t actually the nice I proposed. Pffft!)

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The local people in Panajachel are lovely once you put them at ease. Guatemalans, by genetics, are extremely small people and quite timid. When you first approach anyone, as Tanya was fond of saying, they look like they expect you’re going to hit them. When they realize they’re not going to get hit, they brighten up noticeably and will engage you in conversation. We got to spend some time with local families when we were invited to be judges at a science fair being held at a local American school where several of the local ex-pats worked as teachers. The students at Life School take most of their classes in English and delivered their projects based around a US curriculum, therefore knowing they would be graded on presentation, content, formatting and aesthetics. Each of the judges were given about six or seven slips of paper with different students names from Grades 3-6. We would then walk around the courtyard where all the students had their projects displayed and look for our assigned kids. They got so excited when they met their judges and you could tell by how animated they were that they’d been working hard on their presentations for some time. My first kid delivered a rousing demonstration on how solar panels functioned (complete with a solar panel, car battery and a light bulb) and passionately explained the future benefits of solar technology. There were several vinegar and baking soda volcanoes which wasn’t all that surprising since the town sits in the shadows of a three volcanoes. The funniest presentation was by a couple obvious trouble makers who delivered their thesis on different smells and their liklihood of making you puke. As judge, of course I figured it was duty to smell all of their concoctions for the purpose of accuracy. Many of the parents were on hand and they watched us ominously as their children gave their presentations. It was nice to speak with the parents, most of whom could not speak English themselves and get their thoughts on their children’s western education. It was a great day and we were awarded by free pizza and orange punch which we ate sitting together in tiny plastic chairs in one of the kindergarten classrooms.

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Tanya and I found some more volunteer work through an organization called Mayan Families which is funded primarily by the Rotarians. In addition to providing medical and dental care for indigenous people, they also run a food provision program for area schools, they participate in the construction of homes for needy families and they have a vocational carpentry school. Ultimately, I had applied to work with the Guatemalan construction crew as they were building three separate houses at the time. I spoke to the volunteer coordinator and on three separate occasions made early morning appointments to go with the coordinator to visit the job sites. Irritatingly, I was stood up all three times. I spoke with the head of the organization, a middle-aged lady from the US somewhere, to explain the situation, and was surprised that she didn’t seem to give a flying fig. She merely laughed it off and walked away from me. When I asked some of our friends in town about Mayan Families, it appeared that the organization was not very well thought of in terms of their of organization or their leadership. Yet another example of a well-meaning organization that makes poor use of the resources available to them. We did manage to connect to the guy running the carpentry shop at a fundraiser dinner. Mike used to run a drywall company in Texas and sold the company just before the bottom fell out of the home-building industry in the States. He had put the program together himself with funding obtained from Mayan Families and some of his business connections in the US. He ran a tight ship and Tanya and I were happy to work with him. Mike had designed and built a beautiful and well equipped carpentry shop within a building owned by Mayan Families. He takes in young local men for free and provides them with year-long vocational courses. Mike liaises with local businesses, mills and joiner shops around Guatemala to ask what skills would be beneficial for future employees to have. Mike himself didn’t have any carpentry experience and said he taught himself joinery skills by watching over 200 hours of YouTube videos. He had six guys that he was training at the time and he was showing them how to make these really cool jewellery boxes out of native Guatemalan timber. The boxes were fairly detailed and there were numerous elements that Mike taught his students in order to get to the finished product. Mayan Families had an agreement with the Rotary Club that all the boxes or other crafts made would be shipped to the states and sold through the Rotarians website. The boxes were to retail for $250 and Mike was expected to have 30 ready by the end of the semester. The money brought in for these sales basically paid for the tools and materials making the program largely self-sufficient. It was a shame that I wasn’t able to participate in the home building programs, but learning about joinery was a nice change of pace.

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Guatemala City

T: Arriving in Cuidad Guatemala was a whirlwind. The first thing that comes to your attention is the mad, dangerous traffic.  The city is divided into Zones;  one drastically differing from the next. As you pass thru, you begin to notice extreme filth and poverty clashing with the next Zona’s plethora of well-dressed folk getting into their brand new Land Rover. (All the filthy rich Latin Americans seem to drive Land Rovers without exception.) This city is full of extremes. The one pleasantry melding the Zonas is a buffer of greenery- a nice touch in such a huge polluted metropolis. My bus pulled up in the early evening to the main terminal in Zona Uno, known as the dodgy, scummy area of the city. Uncharacteristically I felt a little nervous and the Lonely Planet’s description of Zona 1 combined with the gang of unsavory characters that had recently jumped on my bus and had sat next to me, didn’t help. I tried to maintaib focus as all I had to do was call a Couchsurfing host, who had offered up his spare room, once I arrived at the station. Of course, neither Erik nor I travel with cell phones and that certainly makes things interesting sometimes. I gathered my bags and, as usual at bus stations, was bombarded instantly with offers for taxis, hotels, gaseosos, drogas, marriage proposals and just about anything else you can think of. I held my head high, gave them my best ‘piss off’ vibe and made my way to a pleasant taxi driver casually leaning on his cab reading a periodico. This is usually my tactic. Always look like I know what I’m doing and where I’m going – do not engage the nagging, yelling hustlers. The lovely man offered his cellphone, sin puesto, and I was able to place a call to Rudhy, our host, who then gave my driver directions to a meeting spot and bargained the fee for me. I was pleased to have escaped the grips of the famously rough Zona Uno, unscathed, and was hoping Erik had a similar welcome to the city.

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Guate Eiffel Tower

Guate Eiffel Tower

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Turns out, Erik was sipping beer and eating comforting pasta alfredo at Applebees, his happy place, waiting for Rudhy to meet him – for the past 3 hours. Rudhy, we came to learn, has very good intentions but is quite a busy man – he provides Central American businesses and governments with cut-rate financing thru his connections with Asian banks. He had meant to meet Erik, but last-minute work, a call from me and the insane traffic had intervened. Thankfully I didn’t have to wait too long at the meeting spot (the corner of a mall) and was much relieved when he appeared just as the sun went down, rescuing me from the incessant whistles and unrelenting stares of passing Guatemalans. Oh, so the staring:  In every city, there are areas where you will be catcalled, stared at, offered drugs, giggled at by teenagers, yelled at by street vendors, touched by homeless people and approached by ex-cons proudly spewing San Quentin-learnt English and wanting to shake your hand. For us, nothing compares to the eerie feeling we had when being stared at by Guatemalans. Not because they are rude or mean, but because they can’t seem to break free of their trance-like state. In awe of us, perhaps? Or just coming down from their daily sugar high? Clearly, Erik and I stand out in a crowd with a three foot height advantage and we generally enjoy our celebrity status:  waving and joking with whoever is daring enough to entice us and trying to put on a little show for onlookers. We have loads of fun trying to make people break into a big grin. We think it’s hysterical when the ogles subside and the giggles come forth, but in Guatemala, it takes A LOT to break a stare (with most people). We aren’t exactly sure why this is. One theory we have is that perhaps in a country where a civil war ended so recently, its citizens remain on edge, ready for another attack;  still shell-shocked.  While in Guatemala, we tried our best to crack these stares and let the locals know we are just friendly people and its okay to smile back.

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Naturally, we were a little worried about security for the motorcycle in the big bad city, so when Rudhy pulled up to his gated community and let the 24 hour security guards know we would be staying awhile, we sighed with relief. Rudhy’s house is tucked away from the madness in one of several wealthy neighborhoods built up on the mountains surrounding the downtown core which are also, thankfully, a few degrees cooler. Built in handsome minimalist Spanish colonial style with traditional Guatemalan touches, his house is spacious, very comfortable and felt like being in a Boutique Hotel (complete with King sized bed and bathrobes!) Not to mention the adorable full-time maid Yolanda, whom Rudhy directed to tidy our room, help with our laundry and cook breakfast every morning- although we tried to politely decline – they both insisted. We have encountered maid services at private homes, hostels and nice hotels in Central America, and have heard horror stories about the treatment of maids, most commonly by the upper class. Rudhy knew this to be true but he treated Yolanda more like an assistant and a friend. He explained that he personally provided Yolanda with family health benefits, rent stipends on her house, takes her and her kids shopping for clothes – all this on top of her wage of $1000. (Most maids in Guatemala make $250/month). While we were there, he even hired a lawyer to spring Yolanda’s husband from jail after he’d gotten into a drunken fight with Yolanda’s father! It appeared a very symbiotic relationship and Yolanda worked efficiently to be available for anyone’s needs and seemed genuinely happy to do her job. She even peeled the skin off each grapefruit segment every morning! Towards the end of our stay, Rudhy mentioned Yolanda’s birthday was the next day and he asked if I would cook a special lunch for her before he took her on a shopping spree. Of course, we were thrilled to have the chance to give back and while Erik took her out for a spin on the back of his motorcycle (her first time on a bike) I whipped up a feast for all of us. She seemed quite touched but still had a tough time not getting up to clear the table.

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Rudhy offered to take us on a day trip and fancy dinner in the colonial city of Antigua, a 45 minute drive from the city. We awoke early, packed our one set of fancy dinner clothes and were ready. Yolanda packed us lunches and we set off but when we hit the highway, Rudhy mentioned he had a quick errand to run. He had just remembered it was the birthday of his ex-girlfriend’s mother. This woman was apparently still quite upset with Rudhy when a year earlier, he broke up with her daughter (she thought they would marry) and began dating men. So he needed to amend this and decided he was going to find her the best flowers his money could buy: orchids to be precise. After we drove to several florists and were now into this “quick errand” for over an hour, we finally found a huge garden center with suitable orchids. I helped Rudhy pick out the most striking colours while he enlisted several shop employees to create a basket bouquet. It was quite an ordeal with women picking out ribbons and bows, and young men filling the basket with the best soil available while Rudhy shouted orders. At one point Rudhy had all four employees at the center, as well as myself, running around doing his bidding. This took another hour and then of course we had to deliver them to the house. Although Erik and I were a little frustrated, hungry and gob-smacked at the total cost of the bouquet ($300), it was a sweet gesture and in the end, she phoned to thank and forgive him and we made it to Antigua before the sun went down.

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Antigua is a spectacular, charming place surrounded by volcanoes, mountains and a never-ending mist in the distance; the quaint town has a very ethereal feel. All the buildings are Spanish colonial and superbly restored; the ancient cobble-stone streets adding wonderful character. It’s quite magical and mysterious. We began our tour with a cup of highly recommended street ceviche, which was simply incredible. The fresh fish are kept in portable coolers and your cup is made-to-order, tossed with jalapenos, lime, salt, tomatoes, onion and, to my surprise and delight, worcheshire sauce and served with a packet of saltines. We toured the streets and stopped next at Finca Filadelfia, the most visited and famous coffee farm in Guatemala. Unfortunately in all of Central America, almost all of the excellent coffee beans are grown for export and most locals haven’t even had a taste of the high grade coffee grown in their own country. This finca, however, does a fabulous job of keeping it all local as well as providing its visitors with a luxurious atmosphere to enjoy while sipping a fresh cup of its finest coffee. I had assumed I would come across the best coffee in the world on this journey but have had to search hard to taste locally grown and exceptional prepared coffee. Commonly, good beans are burnt in either roasting or brewing, and sometimes the coffee is of the instant variety. I have learned to always ask before ordering, “Es la café instantanio o fresco?”

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At the coffee farm we changed into our nice clothes – which hadn’t seen the light in quite some time – and made way to, as Rudhy declared, “the best restaurant in all of Guatemala.” Panza Verde certainly did not disappoint. It happened to be Mother’s Day so the restaurant was jam-packed and was serving a set course menu. Rudhy is a frequent and valued customer, so when he called ahead and spoke directly to the chef to special requested escargot (not on the Mother’s Day menu) they had no problem bending over backwards to accommodate.  He also procured his favorite table, with a perfect view of the pool, terrace and live jazz band. After we ordered, Rudhy took us for a tour of the grounds, which are both architecturally intriguing and elegantly decorated. Erik was inspired and snapped plenty of photographs of the old colonial mansion and its grounds. The restaurant/hotel was up for sale, and Rudhy knew the layout well, having recently considered it for a home. (He ended up putting an offer on a restored mansion spanning an entire city block, complete with ten bedrooms, 4 gardens and quarters for Yolanda and her family). The meal itself was out of a Top Chef finale. I savored each bite and had not one complaint – well, only that I wasn’t able to decipher how they’d executed everything so perfectly. I must assume the kitchen staff consists of several red seal chefs. It was a decadent meal, which of course Rudhy treated us to, and it wouldn’t the last. That was one of two trips to Antigua with Rudhy, and the second was just as brilliant. We sipped imported beers and expensive cocktails at a few fancy bars and sampled a couple more posh restaurants; there is no shortage of superb dining opportunities in Antigua. We walked thru famous Casa Santo Domingo, a former monastery, destroyed by earthquakes but now a grandiose sight since converted into a plush hotel and museum. The large property still includes parts of the monastery and church, winding ancient tunnels and weathered, creepy underground and outdoor crypts. The new additions were just as interesting; a chocolate factory, hand-made candle and ceramic shop, modern & classic art galleries (photography, sculpture, paintings), lush spa and garden area complete with Parrots. Casa Santo Domingo is representative of Antigua’s remarkable combination of historical marvels and contemporary ingenuity.

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During these two weeks, we spent plenty of time resting in the confines of Rudhy’s house but sometimes drove to the posh mall to see how rich Guatemalans spent their money, or on busy days we searched endlessly for motorcycle tires in the appropriate size. And a couple times, Rudhy took us out to one of his choice food joints in the city. Rudhy isn’t afraid of much and can surprisingly hold his own among the gang members, drug dealers and corrupt police officers; which he once proved while ushering us to one of his favorite seafood places in seedy Zona Four. Naturally, he pulled up right out front, parking where he saw fit, as from what we saw, he could usually get away with doing what he wanted. This time, though, a police officer stopped him and told him he would be ticketed for “trying to run down a food cart” (which of course, didn’t happen). He sort of smirked at them, in a “try-me” kind of way, knowing that they were out to rob the rich Asian guy in the SUV and he was not having any of it. After a few minutes chatting to the police, we all just walked away and hoped his car would be there, un-touched when we finished dinner; none of the machine-gun-toting fellas outside the restaurant looked too thrilled to have us in their barrio either. When we sat down, Rudhy explained that the restaurant is the very best for seafood, and ordered several dishes promptly when the waitress arrived. He then let out that the restaurant is actually owned by a gang kingpin – but the food outweighs the risk of entry and there is rarely a problem. It was, truthfully, quite tasty lobster, crab and giant shrimps and we saw once again that you never know what to expect in this multi-faceted city.

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Rudhy often went on about different organizations he and his company donated too and one day we went with Rudhy to visit his pet project, a huge orphanage that he funds completely out of pocket. He has been supporting this orphanage since early 2009, when he caught wind of the government appropriating the majority of the funding; a common problem with these types of projects in the third world. When Rudhy took over, he purchased surrounding land, increasing the size of the existing facility 20 times. Beyond the one poorly-built, bunker-type structure, he constructed several more administrative buildings, living quarters and play areas. When Rudhy took over the facility five years earlier, there were 120 orphaned or abandoned children looked after here. To date, the orphanage houses over 900 kids. Most were found left on street corners or pulled from abusive families and a large number have severe mental and physical ailments, sometimes the result of abuse. The children that live here range in age from infants to pre-schoolers, to teenagers up to the age of 15 when they ‘age out’ and have to leave; usually a very traumatic and difficult transition. The original structure remains separated from the rest of the facility by a steel wall and serves as the home and school for the 13-15 year-old group of troubled teenagers and ex-gang members. The orphanage is a full-time care facility for these kids, where they are housed, educated and forbidden to exit the closely guarded 12-foot razor-wire topped walls unless on chauffeured outings or school field trips. Although it looks and feels very much like a prison, the prevailing view is that the children are infinitely safer within the confines of the complex than being the victims of predators on the streets.

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We stopped at the grocery store en route to purchase bags of chips and juice for the kids (Rudhy usually brings Coca-Cola but we could not condone this, so we asked he buy orange juice). When we arrived, children of all ages greeted us, touching our clothes, asking questions; starving for any bit of attention. We spent time handing out the snacks and joking around with some young boys (all of them calling us “Mami and Papi”). Then we peered into the nursery for newborn babies, cared for affectionately by multiple full-time nurses. We stopped outside another facility, specifically for children with mental and physical disabilities where Rudhy wanted to check up on a recently admitted little boy who was found badly abused, with one of his eye balls hanging out of his eye socket. He had been operated on and seemed to be recovering well, but we all welled-up thinking of what this poor child had gone thru and the battle he will face for the rest of his life. Continuing, we peeked in the window of a classroom of little girls aged 4-6 and they got very excited so the teacher invited us in. They referred to me as “princessa”, as they smoothed my blond hair, poked at my face and asked to touch my nose ring. It didn’t take long before Erik and I were picking them up, swinging them around and having a blast – it was certainly sad for everyone when we had to leave.

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On the drive home Rudhy mentioned he had a yet to solve one problem with his program and asked for our input. He provides each child the opportunity of fully paid college/university education;  but in five years not one teenager has taken up this offer. “They all want to be bakers, butchers or shop keepers,” he said, dumbfounded, “I can’t understand why they don’t want to become lawyers or doctors!” We suggested he implement a career counselor for kids at least by the age of fourteen, a year before they “age out”.  Set weekly appointments with each child to figure out in which field they may excel, discuss job options, take them to job sites and teach them the importance of further education;  just as we do in other parts of the world. Being raised in a closed compound has obviously made these children extremely sheltered and has likely led to institutional syndrome no different to long term prisoners. They don’t know how to interact with adults or to be adult themselves in a work or higher education environment. Therefore, falling back on easy, low-paying jobs and not careers. Rudhy agreed a career counselor could very well be the ticket so we hope he is taking measures to set this up. Coming from a wealthy family where education and success are taken very seriously, we could understand why Rudhy was having trouble relating to the aspirations of poor and traumatized orphans. Luckily for these kids, he is dedicated, with the financial backing and will power to help them in developing a future for themselves. We had many fantastic and out of the ordinary adventures with Rudhy and are very grateful he opened up his world to us. Never was there a dull moment in Guatemala City.

E: Our Couchsurfing host in Guatemala City was a businessman named Rudhy. He proved to be one our most interesting hosts to date speaking eight different languages very proficiently and revealing what it is like to run a company that provides funding for multi-national companies and some countries. Rudhy had a very global upbringing being born in Indonesia to Chinese and Japanese parents. He spent years in the Neteherlands at boarding school and then went to University at Cornell. As well as speaking all of these languages, including both Chinese dialects, he also speaks English, Spanish and German. Truly impressive. We were very thankful for his beautiful villa situated within a gated community on a steep prominence high above the city. The ride into the city was surprisingly calm and enjoyable. The weather was perfect and warm with not too much of a breeze. The distance from Rio Dulce to Rudhy’s suburb is more than half the width of the entire country, but thanks to the well-engineered section of the Pan-American Highway here, I made the trip in under 4 hours.  Pradera Concepcion, the area that our host wanted to meet us is in the SE of the city just beyond Zona 10. My bike was barely limping along after the abuse it took on the El Mirador trip;  the rear brake pedal was being held on with a combination of tie wire, duct, and electrical tape, the steering column assembly was super loose (needing a special wrench to tighten up), the headlight was blown, and the skid plate had been torn off on the last day in the jungle. Also, the monoshock which had blown apart in Chiapas was still super slack and in this condition made the bike extremely unstable, especially when loaded down. My back tire was nearly bald again and the front tire was also starting to wear with cracks developing around the knobs in the tread and could stand to be replaced.  In other words, I was in desperate need of a mechanic. I did some Google searching from Rudhy’s place and found that there was an actual Kawasaki dealer in GC. The website said they did service as well, but having visited the so-called dealers in Guadalajara and Merida, I knew that service probably meant they sell riding gloves and maybe some oil. Later in the day, I received and e-mail from Phil who had arrived in Guate a few days earlier and said both his and Jayne’s bikes were at the Kawi shop and they seemed on the level. I was invigorated by this news on a very deep and profound level. It had been seven months since I’d come across a proper mechanic with a proper shop and proper tools.

My girlfriend's new 80's hair

My girlfriend’s new 80’s hair

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I made an appointment the next day and when I showed up at their showroom, I was greeted by Klaus, a German-Guatemalan.  He took me downstairs and I was delighted to find a clean, modern-looking shop which already contained four other KLR’s including Phil and Jayne’s bikes, Jugs and Cricket. I was also enthused to see that Klaus rode the same year and colour bike as mine. Klaus and his mechanics were so unbelievably helpful. He spoke to me knowledgably about the problems and even offered to sell me the stock skid plate from his bike as he’d replaced his with an aluminum after-market one. The guys popped out the thermostat because the bike had been getting really hot in the stop and go traffic. They had all the rest of the parts that I needed with the exception of the monoshock. Klaus offered to order this from the states and said he had a Miami post office box where he could have it sent and they couriered to Guatemala City for around $100. I was beyond happy. I had looked into getting the shock while in Mexico which would have involved a 3 week wait and I would have paid twice what it sells for in the states. While the mechanics were doing the work, I left to run around the city and try to find some new tires. There were a wealth of automotive shops throughout adjacent Zona 4 and 11. I was amazed when I found the stock Bridgestone 17 x 130 rear amongst a pile of a dozen or so tires at one store. Unfortunately I couldn’t locate a suitable front tire and had to settle on a knobby 21”. Both tires were under $100 apiece so I figured I’d done well. I got a taxi and raced back to the Kawi dealer hoping they could change out both tires before the end of the day. When I got back after sitting with the knobby in the cab, I was having serious second thoughts about running an off-road tire through the rest of Central America. I spoke with Klaus and he understood my concerns. He generously offered to take me in a company truck to some other specialized motorcycle shops that he knew of. At shop #2, I found the popular Shinko 80/20 tire that received good reviews on the internet. The store owner wanted $160 for it though which is double what it costs online. I managed to talk him down to $130 bucks if I paid in cash. I was a bit choked at how much of a mark-up the guy put on it but was very grateful for Klaus driving me around and didn’t want to take up anymore of his time. Still, after we left the shop, Klaus insisted in driving me back to the original store and waited with me while I returned the knobby front tire. I can’t remember ever getting this kind of service/help anywhere in Canada. Klaus made his guys stay a few minutes late to ensure that both tires were put on so I didn’t have to come back the next day. Back in Klaus’ office he totaled up the bill, not including the monoshock which I’d have to return for in a couple weeks, and showed me the cost on his computer:  74,65. Feeling confident that the price was in Quetzales which would work out to about $900) I quipped, “What, in American dollars, no problem!”  Klaus responded, yes in dollars. I was completely floored. They’d had 2-3 guys working on my bike for around 6 hours and the whole bill with parts and labour came out to $75!!! As I knew, the Kawasaki dealership was owned by Grupo Los Tres which is a huge syndicate in Guatemala. They own Audi dealerships, Volvo, BMW, Toyota and others. I reasoned that the Kawi dealership wasn’t hurting for profit. New KLR’s retail here for $9,000US, a $2,500 mark-up on the cost in Canada or the US. Klaus, an obvious motorcycle enthusiast, seemed super stoked that he was able to help out riders coming all the way from Canada and it appeared he did so all the time. I’m pretty sure he just charged me for the parts and ate the labour. What an incredible guy. The gesture was incredibly appreciated as I was expecting to shell out several hundred dollars to get the bike put back together.

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A couple weeks later, when Tanya and I were in Panajachel, Klaus e-mail and said my new shock had arrived from the States. I took a two day trip into the City to get it installed and also to (hopefully) pick up a package that Tanya’s mother had sent to a friend of mine in Guatemala City, three months before. It contained some necessary motorcycle and camera parts, as well as other necessities not readily available in Central America. The package never arrived at my buddy’s address and we reasoned it might be at the main post office in Guate City. The Kawi guys were happy to see me and we joked around for a few minutes. I noticed that there was a brand new 2012 KLR in the back of the shop with the engine case split apart. I looked over at Klaus in horror and asked what had happened. He calmly told me that he had a customer with an old model KLR and he didn’t some engine parts. It would take too long to get them sent from the factory, so to assist their client, Klaus ordered his guys to split opened the engine on a brand new bike. Who’s ever heard of anything like this in their life?!? This guy went above and beyond good customer service. While my new after-market and delightfully beefy shock was being installed, I ran over to the post office in Zona 1, to try and locate my package. Upon entering the office this is what I saw:

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I would have laughed my ass off if I hadn’t spent so much time on the phone and through e-mail trying to track down our package. Canada Post didn’t have any information and that all they knew it had been received in Mexico four days after it had shipped. Beyond that trying to get any information is like looking into a black hole. It is incredible to think that every package sent anywhere in Guatemala simply arrives at this office and goes no further. No notification is sent out. No one from the shipping country lets you know packages don’t make it outside of the main post office. Sure enough, after 10 minutes of looking, the staff came up with my parcel. Unfortunately and almost tragically, Tanya’s mom had put my friends name on the parcel (as we’d given to her) but my name wasn’t on it, therefore they wouldn’t release it to me despite the fact that I had the original shipping receipt, the address, my friend’s name, of course. I was beyond frustrated and through a bit of a fit, saying that they’d had my package for three months and why hadn’t it been delivered directly to the address it was shipped to. Of course, as I well knew, there is never any point in reasoning with civil servants in Latin America. It’s like smashing your own forehead against a wall of broken glass. I lied and said that my buddy was out of the country and could I just get him to send an e-mail saying it was okay to release the package to me. They said this would work, but he needed to provide photocopies of his driver’s license another piece of ID, and a scanned letter including my name and passport details with his signature. I hadn’t been in touch with Alvaro in at least a couple weeks and I was really hoping I could track in down as I was due to head back to Panaj the next morning. I left the post office and immediately went to an internet café to e-mail Alvaro and see if I could get the documents the post office required. I sent both Alvaro and his wife a message through Facebook but didn’t get a reply at all that day. I was stressing a bit and was extremely hopeful I would get in touch by the next morning as I wasn’t planning on staying in Guate an extra day.

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Palacio Nacional

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The area where I had chosen to stay was near the airport and there were a number of hostels – a far cry from than most areas which cater to backpackers. The area was extremely rough looking and had all the telltale signs:  razor wire, crumbling buildings, gangsters. The neighbourhoods consisted of 6 or 8 square block gated communities. Basically there was a perimeter fence around a group of houses and a security guard with a machine gun posted at the gate. I had the hardest time finding the hostel I’d reserved because there are no signs anywhere and the street the hostel was on was completely encircled within one of these compounds. I finally found the place and checked in. It was alright except for the price. $30 for one person for the night is exceptionally expensive by Guatemala standards – I guess that is the price of security in Guatemala City. I had an extremely hard time finding anywhere to eat dinner. There was nothing in my neighbourhood beyond some filthy tiendas and fried chicken stands all monopolized by neighbourhood thugs. I decided I was better off leaving my compound and riding into the business district. But finding a decent place for dinner proved just as hard here. There was a smattering of extremely upscale eateries which I wasn’t really looking for. Despite riding around the main downtown core of Guatemala City for an hour, I couldn’t find any just regular-type restaurant for dinner. I finally had to settle for a Hooters Restaurant, if you can believe it. This was seriously the only option to get something substantial to eat for under $20. I tried finding Alvaro on Facebook chat again but he wasn’t around. Decided to chill for the night, have a few beers and not worry about the elusive package or the retarded Guate civil servants for the rest of the night. The waitresses were nice enough but they were a bit awkward and definitely not the most attractive girls I had ever seen. Definitely not of the same caliber of voluptuousness or suggestiveness as our Hooters girls back home.

Antigua at night

Antigua at night

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No return message from Alvaro the next morning but thankfully as I was having my breakfast, he showed up on Facebook chat (Really loving my new powers of connectivity through FB!) I explained to Alvaro that the post office needed him to e-mail his permission and some ID info to enable me to pick up my package. He said he wasn’t sure if he could help me at the moment because his son was ill and he was at the hospital. He said that he was really sorry but he wasn’t able to leave the hospital. Of course, under these circumstances, I totally understood and told Alvaro not to worry about it and to look after his family. Considering I’d been waiting for this package for three months and the Guatemalan postal service hadn’t lived up to their responsibility of delivering the damn thing and considering the contents were greatly needed, I decided to ride back to the post office and get my damn package by any means necessary. I parked my bike (probably illegally) right outside the front door and stomped up the stairs. When I got to the desk, the same 8 ninnies were all there again running around moving peoples parcels to and fro. I again presented the delivery slip with all the information including the tracking number. I said that I wasn’t able to get in touch with my friend but could I at least physically see that the parcel was there and I would come back later. Of course, just this simplest of requests took conversing with four different people behind the counter. Finally a young kid in the corner punched the info into a computer and scampered off into the wilderness of parcels surround him to see if he could retrieve my box. After about 10 minutes I was floored when he re-emerged holding the parcel. He set it down on the floor a few meters from the counter and looked at my paperwork again. I made an impassioned plea to get them to release the package. I had a copy of the original delivery receipt from Canada. I had Tanya’s ID which shows her last name – the same as the sender (her mom). I showed them the address of the recipient as well as a print out that I made of the e-mail correspondence between Alvaro and myself where he said I could have the package sent to his house. I also went through a list of the contents of the box which I said they could open and verify. After three more people looked at all the documentation, they made they made the robotic decree that they could not give me the package. This is when I lost it. I hurdled myself over the counter and grabbed the package. One of the women screamed, a security guard burst into the room and leveled a shotgun at me. I threw the package back onto the floor and whipped out my jack knife. There were now eight or nine people standing around me shouting in a frenzy including the man with the gun. I plunged my knife into the box and ripped open the top. I started throwing the contents around the office. “Mira!” I shouted. “Mi lente de cámara, un llanta por mi moto, grande sandales para mi, una tarjeta con mi nombre, tampons para mi esposa!!!” Another gentleman walked into the office while chocolates, toiletries, socks and tampons where being thrown about the room. He must have been one of the jefes because he asked some of the post office employees what was going on. He took stock of the situation and saw how crazed with frustration this large white man was tearing apart a package amid thousands of other undelivered packages. He told me to be traquillo and started to help me put the items back into the box. He took a document that the young man was holding, put his signature on it and said that I could take the package. Thank Christ! Sometimes unorthodox methods are the key to dealing with the mindfuck that is Latin America.

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Rio Dulce

E: After leaving our spacious home in El Remate, our next stop was an organic farm called Finca Ixobal. The Lonely Planet really talked this place up but it seems to have fallen into neglect over the years since the American owner was disappeared and murdered by the Guatemalan military in 1990. We found some super cool outbuildings, bridges and carvings throughout the property but I suspect these are from a bygone era. The Lonely Planet says the farm offers volunteer opportunities, but when we arrived we couldn’t locate the volunteers the receptionist said were working here and we only found a small plot of tomatoes and some squashes; hardly a productive subsistence farm. This was unfortunate because I was hoping we could do some farming here for a week or so before moving further into Guatemala. The grounds were beautiful but all the cabanas were prohibitively expensive meaning the ten or so visitors were all crammed into one building which resembled a barn with room dividers made of plywood slats; definitely not comfortable or quiet. There were shared washrooms at the end of the building but the next morning we awoke to four buses of high school-age children on a field trip waiting to use the two toilets. This meant we had to wait behind them to perform our morning ablutions. It also meant that we had to wait an hour and a half to get breakfast from the undersized kitchen. Definitely not what I would consider a hospitable place and much more expensive than it should be for what was offered. We didn’t feel a bit guilty about running out on our food tab.

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When I got to the end of the seedy and congested main drag of Rio Dulce, a riverside town in northeast Guatemala, I discovered the hotel I had chosen was accessible only by boat access. This wasn’t going to work with my cycle. I met a couple jovial-looking, shirtless, white dudes sitting in plastic chairs outside a pulperia and decided to ask them about hostels. I could kinda tell that they had been here awhile because of their long beards and bare feet. I suspect they had turned up, liked the place but now didn’t have the money to leave. Their southern US trailer-park accents completed the opus for me. I felt like I was engaging the guys from Duck Dynasty (which judging by the frequency of episodes that are aired in Guatemala apparently has a huge following here.) They directed me to a hotel at the end of the strip under the huge concrete bridge spanning the two sides of the channel connecting of Lago de Ixobal to the ocean. When I got to the Vista Rio Hotel I was greeted by Jay, a middle-aged New Orleans native with long dirty blonde hair. He showed me some really nice rooms within the hotel with free movies and hot water; but they were $25 a night. I opted for the backpacker hostel in the parking lot which was essentially a concrete bunker with shared bathrooms outside. These rooms were only $10 and I could park my bike just outside the door;  perfect for a couple money-conscious backpackers. The hostel was right on the river and had a great bar around the back facing the harbor. When I went down to check out the dock, I met Jay’s wife, Jane (Jay and J!!!) getting something from their sailboat moored on the single dock at the bottom of the property. She also seemed friendly and equally brash. I was excited to grab Tanya from the bus station and come back here for some lunch and beers with our new hosts.

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We had left the Finca pretty early after the frustrating start to our day. The farm was in between the cities of Flores and Rio Dulce down a gravel lane off the main road. I drove Tanya and her backpack out to the highway and found a small palapa a few kilometers back towards Flores next to some tiendas manned by friendly-looking owners. I waited with her for 20 minutes for a bus to come along but was starting to get anxious because my gear was still back at the finca and I wanted to get on the road before it got too hot. This was the main throughway across this part of the country and there were always plenty of buses. I figured she wouldn’t have to wait much longer and that it was safe to leave her by herself so I gave her a hug and zipped back to the Finca for my luggage. The road was pretty good and not very busy and I managed to get to Rio Dulce in just over two hours. After checking in at Rio Vista and throwing on my shorts and sandals, I ran back to the main street were the buses left off passengers and waited for my Tans. The Duck Dynasty guys were still in their chairs and they were three now, so I rucked up to a tienda and grabbed a six pack of Brava beers, pulled up a seat and joined them. It was coming on noon now and fatally hot. The beers were going back fast and I was having a raucous time shit-talking with the guys, but my eyes kept darting back to the street every 15 seconds or so hoping to see Tanya getting off a bus. After waiting for more than two hours, I started to get concerned. Although slow because of all the drop offs and pickups, I couldn’t conceive that it would take the bus more than four and a half hours to travel 150 km.

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My six pack drained, I walked up the main drag a ways asking locals if there was another spot where the buses dropped people off. Everyone assured me that all the buses went to the place where I had been waiting. I found the boaty who took people across to the original hotel we discussed in case Tanya had found her way there, but he said he hadn’t seen her. I gave him instructions that if she showed up to say Ernesto would meet her at Vista Rio. He seemed concerned and clever and I was confident he would convey the message. I went back to join my bearded redneck friends and started really expressing my concerns now. They all agreed that buses were slow, but not that slow, plus we had already seen quite a few pass through town. I waited for another hour and was really losing it now. The guys were doing their best to console me saying that this part of Guatemala wasn’t at all dangerous and people were very friendly. I had made up my mind that I was going to get my bike and ride back to look for her. I said goodbye to the fellas giving them the same message for my beautiful girlfriend if she ever showed up and started heading back to the hotel. I took one last look over my shoulder before going under the bridge and saw Tanya walking down the street with a big smile and her cowboy boots scuffing along the pavement. I ran over to give her a relieved kiss and hug and another kiss before taking her backpack. “Oh my God, where were you??” I yelled, and heard myself sounding a bit more accusing than I had intended. “You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “Like eight buses passed me on the highway but they were all completely full and didn’t even stop. I had to wait two and a half hours before I even got on a bus. As much as Tanya and I really enjoy not having phones, this is one time when I really wished we had them. There had been a few anxious times like this before when I was left waiting for Tanya (and once when she waited for me for seven hours when my bike broke down outside Campeche, but this was by far the worst incident. Plus I was pretty drunk, dehydrated and had been too squirrelly to think about eating anything. We went directly back to the hotel and had a thoroughly enjoyable cuddle and a nap.

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While waiting for Tans all afternoon, I did come across this rad Jesus bath towel.

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20130506-IMG_4672Jay and J were the best hotel managers ever. They kept their bar open for us the first night so we could get our drink on after our trying and anxiety-filled day. Hell, they got shitfaced right along with us. We played a marathon game of darts which was likely prolonged by the massive gusts of winds blowing through the open bar from the tropical storm that was brewing outside. Once my heroic novia finally nailed the bullseye for the win, Jay grabbed a bottle of rum from the bar and the four of us went out to their sailboat to get further snarled and enjoy a front row seat for the fearsome lightning storm overhead. The next day, the J’s gave themselves the afternoon off and guided us on their scooter around the north side of the lake to some cool picnic spots and a hot water waterfall. They brought a thermos full of vodka orange and we spent the afternoon swimming around and trying to endure the incredibly hot water while swimming underneath the waterfall. There was a native man who works here and he guided us up the side of the cascada to the source of the hot spring. Here we lathered ourselves with the mineral rich mud and then hiked back to the lake to rinse off. Jay said that they could usually jump off the top of the falls, but the water level was particularly low right now and he didn’t want to risk jumping. Considering I had no problem touching bottom anywhere in the lake there was no bloody way I was going to consider flinging myself off the cliff 25 feet above and we happily climbed down the way we’d gone up (although this proved to be a bit more of a slippery proposition now, being completely covered in mud.)

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20130504-IMG_4530-2Our hosts were getting burned out with running the hotel due to the uncooperative and lazy attitudes of the local girls they had working in the kitchen and as chambermaids. Repeatedly the girls would not turn up for their shifts or they would throw fits when directed to perform tasks. The girls would be let go and Jay and J would have to hire and train someone new. They said this was the most frustrating thing about trying to run a place like Rio Vista in a place like Guatemala. So the J’s decided to give themselves a couple days off and got one of the alcoholic regulars to watch the bar and hotel for them. They invited us to go on the sailboat with them up the river to Livingston, a Garifuna community on the Gulf, and come back the next day. We were stoked at not having to take one of the tourists boats that charged $30 per person and we would get to spend more time with the J’s. I was also excited to spend the night on a 36-footer to see whether I would be able to live on a boat this size. Even though the J’s offered us the V-berth up front, it was still way to cramped for Tanya and I and both of us spent the night smashing our heads on the hull and shelves. It looks like my original prediction stands, that I would need at least a 40’ but likely a 44’. The sail down the river was beautiful and we were making good speed, approximately 7 knots, under sail. I sat at the helm with Jay and he told me stories about getting caught in huge storms in the Caribbean and the frightening angles the boat would reach as it coasted up and back down the massive drifts. He reminded me quite a bit of Captain Ron. About midday we stopped at a dock next to a sign advertising some caves. We paid one of the native men on the dock a few dollars. He located some tiny flashlights for us and took us along a path up into the jungle a ways. The cave entrances were really tiny which made it creepy entering them since we couldn’t see where we were going and didn’t know what was inside with us. Turns out there were heaps of bats, an entire wall covered in roaches and the most terrifying spiders that have ever existed on the planet. And to think… the entire tour cost just $2!

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The rest of the trip was brilliant. We stopped at an eco-village marina in the middle of the river for a bar-b-que and a slip to spend the night. One of the Duck Dynasty guys was there with his boat and the J’s were friends with the owner so we already had some mates to hang with. A really nice, chilled out place with great food. We were pretty bagged by nightfall and had a quiet night aboard despite pinging my noggin off the bow half a dozen times during the night. The next morning after some eggs and a cuppa, we took the dingy and sped to the mouth of the river where there is a Garifuna community called Livingston. It was a pretty rough-around-the-edges kinda place, with unsavoury gold-toothed characters dealing drugs in the parque central and lots of heavy stares around town, but overall we had a nice time. Tanya got her hair braided by a local woman named Claudia and we all enjoyed a bucket of fried chicken from Chicken Campero (owing to a severe lack of food options.) Jay and J took us to meet one of their American friends who runs a hostel here. We chatted for a while over some tropical drinks and he gave Tanya and I a book he thought we would enjoy (which we have since read together and did!) On the way back to the sailboat the J’s took us to a rock face which they and many others had graffitied. Unbeknownst to us they had brought a can of spray paint with them in the dingy so they could freshen up their tag. Of course, I gave them some smack about defacing nature and, instead of arguing with me, Jay just tagged E + T on the rock next to their own tag. As we motored away and looked back, Tans and I were both happy to get our place on the wall. It made it acceptable since I wasn’t the one wielding the spray can.

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20130506-IMG_464020130506-IMG_465820130506-IMG_466320130506-IMG_466420130506-IMG_468320130506-IMG_468720130506-IMG_4682We had some very interesting chats and we enjoyed getting to know this couple very much. They work very hard to eek out a living running the hotel but seemed discontent that they couldn’t travel more often. They said there wasn’t anyone that they trusted to run the bar for them since it’s a cash business. They seemed to really want us to stay on even offering us a sweet room on the private top floor overlooking the water. With my business acumen and handyman skills and Tanya’s experience in hospitality, they thought we would be the perfect couple to look after things while they went away. We weren’t completely repulsed by the idea. The setting is really beautiful… well on the lake side anyway… and there are plenty of characters that come off the sailboats all the time. The bar was always full of eccentric personalities with interesting stories to tell. We would live and eat for free plus be able to sock a bit away in the travel fund. But like the other opportunities I’ve come across, it just wasn’t time to settle down yet. The thought of so much open road ahead was still way too enticing.

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Pyramids and Peyote, an Adventure Ride in the Jungle

As written by my adventure partner, Phil Davidson, for his blog. He totally nailed this post and I didn’t think it could be written any better, certainly no more humorously. (plus it’s 8,000 bloody words!) Thanks Phil,  for chronicling our adventure and for sharing such a memorable experience 🙂

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Pyramids and Peyote

You know, rain right now would be a really mixed blessing. We would have water to drink, but would never get the bikes out of here.”

An early morning visit to the ruins of Tikal came highly recommended by everyone I talked to who had visited Guatemala. So I got up at 5:30am, well before any of the others were willing to open their eyes, and explored Tikal solo. I saw Monkeys, snakes, and even birds eating each other. I heard howler monkeys howling and gazed as the ruins revealed themselves out of the morning fog. Tikal was amazing. You should visit if you have the chance. But this blog post isn’t really about Tikal. This is about El Mirador.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…and getting there ain’t easy.

El Mirador is an even BIGGER ancient ruined city in northern Guatemala. It is home to “La Danta”, the biggest pyramid in the Americas, and the largest by volume in the WORLD. Erik aka “Ernesto”, fellow KLR rider, had mentioned the existence of El Mirador a few times prior to us going to Tikal, and post Tikal I was sold. Bigger than Tikal? To El Mirador I must go.

Unlike Tikal, which has a paved road going right to it with hundreds of tour buses, cars and vans making trips daily, a trip to El Mirador is a touch more difficult. The “standard” tour to Mirador is a five-day 92km hike with mules and a guide, after a long dirt-road drive to the starting point in a town named Carmelita. This tour costs around 400$US EACH, though we heard of folks getting it for closer to 150$ by bringing their own food and gear. Regardless, we didn’t want to pay, or walk. This is a motorcycle trip after all.

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…and these two motos are packed and ready for a ride to the jungle.

We packed more gear/food on my bike, necessary as Erik’s monoshock was faulty and his pre-load setting stuck on “1″. Leaving his panniers back at the house, less weight was more for Erik.

Day 1: April 24, 2013, 0730 departure – El Remate, Guatemala

My map shows a road that goes to Mirador. It’s not very detailed, but there is definitely a road of sorts on that map.

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After food, we needed a splash of Whiskey, a camping necessity. Once out of Santa Elena, there’s not much for tiendas (aka corner stores) to buy whiskey or much else. Determined, 45 minutes of very hot riding, following poor directions to empty tiendas later, we were successful. For the record, whiskey is available at the yellow tienda, NOT the blue one, no matter how many people insist otherwise. Whiskey acquired we ventured forth, and it wasn’t long on the road before pavement gave way to gravel, and gravel gave way to dirt. It also wasn’t long before my thoughts went from thinking “I can’t believe Jayne is skipping this trip” to “I’m glad Jayne didn’t come on this trip. We’d be turning around soon”. The dirt turned downright dusty, making it hard to see when stuck behind anyone, and even a touch loose and sandy at times too. It was HOT. In full gear, I was dripping sweat, and guzzling the water from my camelback. And then suddenly my clutch wasn’t fully disengaging. This was fine when just riding along, but when I had to stop or ride slowly I would stall out. Quick handlebar adjustment solved the issue, but I’m to this day a bit baffled at what caused it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHot, but hot in a scenic kind of way

There were a number of checkpoints along the road, with the barricades mostly down. I say mostly, because they were all just high enough for two tall men on motorbikes to duck under without stopping. Both Ernesto and I shared the philosophy that if you don’t stop, they can’t ask you for money.

Did I mention it was hot? After a bit over an hour of fighting dust and dirt, we came to a fork in the road with some locals sitting around, some of whom were drinking cold cervesas. Time to stop. Couple cold beer sitting in the shade really hit the spot.

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Took the opportunity to consult the locals for advice on where this road is to Mirador. “The only way is via Carmelita, and that trail is very tough… impassable by moto” came the response. Little did they know we weren’t your ordinary moto riders. Impassable was a frame of mind. We finished our beers and got back on the road.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFollow the blue signs

Very new looking blue “Mirador” signs led up to Carmelita, where the trail to Mirador starts. Again ducked under a barricade at the edge of town, then rolled towards the head of the trail.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow many times must you freely pass a barricade before it’s not a barricade anymore?

The “co-operativa” runs the show in this town, and basically all tourists book their guides and mules through them, regardless of which agency they book through. We just kept following the blue signs until we got to the head of the trail, at which point we stopped to discuss.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat’s more of a wide path than a road

“This isn’t a road.”

“True.”

“Were we not told there was a road? And on the map, it shows a road right?”

“Yes.”

“Should we find that road? We can always come back.”

“Yes.”

U-turn. Back in the town we stopped and asked a gentleman for his advice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAObviously not working for the co-operativa, this man kindly laid out our Mirador options.

He mentioned a road 20 km back called “Los Pescaditios”. That road goes to El Mirador he said. Or we can take the trail. But he noted the trail has fallen trees and such blocking the path in places. It might actually be impassable.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACarmelita Barricade man most certainly is passable. We stopped on the way out and asked for directions. He asked us for money for the way in.

Back under the Carmelita barricade, where we stopped quickly to confirm directions. The guard said the only way was via the trail. He then asked us for money. Back we went to find the road to Los Pescaditios. Riding along the Los Pescaditos road, we happened across a couple men standing in the trees off to the side. We asked them for directions. “Go up 3km ahead and ask for Ricardo, he’ll help you. And watch out for the logging trucks.” Logging trucks?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOh, THOSE logging trucks.

3km ahead there was yet another road barricade, though this one was lowered to a height not duckable, and guarded by army men. With guns. We stopped at this one.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStop. Or they’ll really shoot.

“We’re looking for Ricardo.” Remembering names, not usually a forte, would prove to be very handy this journey. I shook hands with Ricardo, who hand been fetched by one of the military men with a gun. I asked Ricardo how to get to Mirador. He replied “Just up this road. But you need permission”. I asked him for permission. Laughing, he said it has to come from a higher power than him. After a little more discussion, Ricardo got on the radio and called said higher power.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhotos of scantily clad women make the radio work better. Over.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYoung men waiting for their turn on the radio.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASit-ups, chin-ups, shine your boots. Repeat.

After 20 minutes, the higher permission said “no”. We had to go through Carmelita. That’s the “only way for tourists”. The only way for us to be allowed on the road would be to get a signed paper from the Guatemalan Tourist board INGUAT. The only way to get that paper was a 4 hour ride (and several ducked barricades) round trip… with no guarantee they would even give us said signed paper once we got there. I tried to be persuasive with Ricardo, and when a local came through the going the other way and drew us a map of the route, I thought we were in.

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I thought wrong. While he was very kind and jovial, Ricardo was not swayed by my words. Nor was he swayed by my first attempt at a bribe this trip: 200 Quetzals tucked in my map.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“We need permission paper? Here’s some permission paper.”

This attempt did convince Ricardo that we A) really wanted to ride this road and B) were not going to go back to Flores to get a piece of paper from INGUAT. My 200 Quetzals were paper, I argued, and far more useful than the document would be. Perhaps the one honest official in Central America, he would not accept the bribe. But he did go climb a tree instead. A very high tree. Over 100 feet up.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWant to call the chief? Better not be afraid of heights.

This is the only way to get cell phone reception out here, and where Ricardo called his Chief on our behalf. 10 minutes later, the answer was still no. Thanks Ricardo, for doing all you could… Just wish you had a single corrupt bone in your body. This did settle it though, the only way to get to El Mirador was the trail in Carmelita.

On the way back, we stopped to buy more water. All this time in our gear in the sun and I was down to less than half my 4.5L supply. It had only been maybe 5 hours. Ernesto was equally low on water. This would be a theme.

Back under the Barricade for the third time now, the man in the box didn’t even stand up to protest. We now knew where we were going, and that this was the only way there for us tourist types.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWelcome to the trail to El Mirador. I am your first fallen tree.

The road was a mix of rough trail with the occasional easy trail ride sections. There was a smooth-ish path where people had been walking, but you were surrounded by the foot deep holes from the hooves of mules in the wet times, and deep ruts from quads hauling in gear to Tintal. This was not a route to take in the rainy season.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADried ruts and hoof holes.

Slow going, first gear only riding with many stops to play catch up, move fallen trees and drink water. Most trees were smaller and on the ground and could be ridden over, others had fallen across the path at an angle and needed to be moved or ridden around.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABring a rugby player. Move some trees.

All worked up a thirst. Drank lots of water. Our shirts soaked in sweat. The heat from our motors was baking us, and with no wind to speak of at the speed we were traveling, our jackets had to go. The relief was instant. The only thing the Jackets would save us from at these speeds were thorns on the jungle plants anyways.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJungle thorns like these ones.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAErik took the thorns like a champ

We met some hikers coming out the trail, and politely pulled off and killed the engines to let them pass. The first gentleman was interested in the trip, chatted for a bit while the others caught up to him. Fooled into thinking they were all kind. One smiling hippy came up, put her hand on my shoulder and said “it’s so great that you’re out here on your motorbikes, killing the monkeys and the environment. That’s great”. Then walked off. I’m pretty sure she rode that high horse all the way to Guatemala. No way she would have flown in a polluting airplane.

A few hours down the trail, we were still yet to make it to the midway camp of “Tintal”, another “smaller” set of ruins in the area. I had read online that Tintal camp had a few resident staff, and more importantly, water. I was down to less than a liter, Erik no better.

“You know, rain right now would be a really mixed blessing. We would have water to drink, but would never get the bikes out of here.”

P4250751-300x225Saved by the large water container in the trees… the large, EMPTY water container.

With the sun setting, we made a push to make it to Tintal, but with more ruts, logs and uneven earth to navigate, the going was slow. The occasional drop didn’t help. I was heavily laden, and the occasional log or rut would snag me. Worse yet was when the kickstand would sink after I hopped off to help Erik over a log. I’d come back to my bike on its side.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat’s that smell?

This was most irritating, as until I got the kickstand back up, I couldn’t lift the bike. It was awkward, and took one to lift the bike more upside down and the other to pop the kick stand up. The worst problem with all this was my gas tank leaks gas around the cap when on its side. I like gas. It’s useful. The longer the bike on i’s side, the more gas lost. I lost a bit on the trail that day. A few drops too many, and the sun setting, we resigned and set up camp on the side of the path.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACamp exhaustion-on-water-rations. And what about all those snakes?

The jungle at night is an incredible place. Rustling breeze, incredible light bugs brighter than any I’ve ever seen, and so quiet. Much more quiet than I anticipated. Our macaroni and cheese plans quashed by our water shortage, we made dinner of tortillas and tuna, then went to sleep.

End of Part 1.
Part Two: The trail gets tougher. No bikes allowed on this trail, I anger Erik giving away mac and cheese, we eat some cactus, and much more. Coming soon…

Day 2: April 25th 2013 – Somewhere in the Jungle

Morning monkeys. So many monkeys. I suppose the same monkeys we were apparently killing with our motorbikes.  These ones escaped us. Sleeping with the fly off the tent allowed us to wake up to watch a whole gang of monkeys flying through the trees above us. It was great. We didn’t even need to get out of the tent.

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While riding my bike tree to tree, I must watch out for the swinging monkey.

Back on the road, we found that we had camped only about 2km from Tintal. The “midway” camp for the hikers, Tintal also comes complete with some smaller ruins. Importantly, they had water and were willing to share.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWater tastes better when it has been carried by a mule.

In return for the much needed water (which takes a 4 hour round trip via mule to collect) I offered to share some of our macaroni and cheese brunch with the Guardas. They happily accepted a change from beans and tortillas. To accommodate, I used three boxes of macaroni instead of two, an action that infuriated Erik. I felt we had plenty to share and things would work out just fine. He didn’t share my ideas on the matter, feeling that our limited food supplies may not last the trip now. I would soon learn why he had these concerns, as Erik needs to eat every three hours or so. At 6’6″, he’s no small boy, and when he gets hungry, others become aware of this fact. I, on the other hand, have been blessed with the hunger equivalent of a camel; often going all day without eating and thinking nothing of it. Besides, it was only Macaroni and cheese. Agreed to disagree.

Post meal, discussion began with one of the “guardas”, aka park rangers. Lionel the guarda was taking issue with us riding our motorbikes any further, since this was quite against the rules. Remembering names…

“Ah, but Lionel, we talked to Ricardo over on Los Pescaditos road. You know, at the military checkpoint? Right, him. He told us that we needed special permission from “Inguat”, but we’d have to return to Flores to get it.

Lionel noded. This was all true.

” To save us that hassle, Ricardo climbed 100 feet up a tree to call his chief. So Ricardo talked to his chief about us you see, while he was hanging high up in a tree, and the chief said for us to come this way.”

Lionel changed his tone, since the chief was aware of our existence. I might have omitted the part where the chief had said “no”. Back on the road we go.

When I say road, I mean path, as it had narrowed some by this point.

The path was nicer in some ways, in that there were no ruts, but the riding was tough and slow at times.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith both of us running low on tread, some hang-ups could have been avoided.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA little less weight, knobbier tires and a motocross bike would have helped.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABunny hop perhaps?

The occasional fallen tree to overcome, hang-up to get unstuck from and the occasional drop of Jugs to the ground. Regardless of how fast I got her up, I would lose a bit of gas, and then have to crank the starter for a bit to un-flood the motor. After a few such instances in a row on a technical section, my battery died. The terrain and the need to turn the engine over a couple times made bump starting difficult to say the least. A tow start became the only option.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne way to save gas: only use one bike.

Linked together with a ratchet strap, Erik towed me down the twisting, stump and root covered trail until I could bounce enough to get traction and finally, after the strap coming loose the first try, getting Jugs fired up. Awesome! Then I couldn’t stall. Stalling was not an option. 10 minutes up the trail, high-centered on a log, I stalled.

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Those 10 minutes had luckily been enough to charge the battery a touch, and the bike fired right back up. Erik was now concerned with my bikes capability to continue, given the history of the clutch sticking and now the battery. I had no concerns, as in either scenario I could fix the issue. I was however becoming more mindful of how much gas we had left, given our slow travel speed and how much gas I had washed my tank bag with. At that point I started to think we might get into El Mirador, but we may never get back out again. All of these concerns were moot a few minutes later.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATriple bunny hop? So this is what they meant by “impassable”.

In all honesty, it still was “passable”. But the time, and water-using effort, it would take to “pass” such objects would shadow us in doubt.

“We can get past this. We CAN get past the next one. But: if we find many more like this down the trail and have to abandon the bikes there, then we have to come BACK over these obstacles on the way out.”

The decision was made to “hide” the bikes in the woods, then hike. If it proved passable down the trail, we would come back and get the bikes in the morning and stubbornly complete our ride to El Mirador. Then we could ride OUT the road past Ricardo and his military friends. We would sure show them!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHard to believe, but there are actually two motorbikes hidden in this photo.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe’re not hiking, we’re scouting the trail.

“Scouting the trail” took 6 hours, and 20km of walking. In those 20km, we encountered 40+ “impassable objects”. Nothing is impassable of course, but these all would have required some prep-work. Not having abandoned the hope of riding to Mirador, initially we were even doing that prep-work; building ramps out of logs and moving others out of the road.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAErik making the “impassable” passable

Eventually we quit doing the prep work to save daylight, but took note of where we’d need to do some work in the morning when we hiked back for the bikes. Eventually we quit doing that too. We resigned ourselves that we were not going to ride to El Mirador. The hike in was frustratingly easy. Mostly flat, with kilometers at a time of prime riding trails. Every now and then though, some giant mangled section of fallen trees would remind us why we were walking.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Good

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The Bad

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Ugly

Our stopping to examine obstacles, combined with a longer lunch/tick removal break left us arriving to El mirador just as darkness was setting in. Or so we thought.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANothing goes with a wrap lunch like your first ever ticks!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe made it! …to the sign that is 45 minutes away from the camp.

The misleading sign was a little deflating. It’s like when you really have to go to the bathroom: after waddling for what feels like forever, you finally make it to the bathroom door and you find it to be locked. So close, yet so far… Our dreams of climbing “La Danta” that night for sunset were squashed.

When we did make it to camp, they ever so kindly had three fires lit to guide us home.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOk, NOW we made it!

Except there was nobody to be found. Tents everywhere, we assume for archaeologists, but not one occupied. A large kitchen and dining area with space for over 100 people, empty. At dinner time. Like a scene out of a horror film, the whole place was deserted. More importantly, the kitchen was void of water too. Once again we found ourselves dry.

I had recently drunk my last drops, leaving me feeling a touch thirsty. Unlike at Tintal, there weren’t large water containers all in a stack. I found some water in a 5 gallon pail and drunk back half a liter. On second inspection, the water was a little funky looking, and I remembered that I had water purifying tablets in my bag. I put the tablets in a second liter of the murky water. Once ripe, I drank all the “purified” water. I figured it would all mix in my belly and purify the first bit of water too. Purification tablets works like that right?

Erik figured there must be another camp somewhere, since we knew a group of tourists had left Tintal before us, and we hadn’t passed them or seen them yet. More exploring in the dark led us to find this was indeed the case.

We decided we would omit the fact that we were on motorbikes, to prevent possible theft, but also since we were breaking a number of rules simply having them in the national park, and didn’t want to cause ourselves unneeded trouble. It was some surprise then, when one of the British tourists we encountered piped up “hey you guys are the ones on motorbikes right?” Ummmmm. Were we wearing gear? Anything motorcycle related in our possession? No. The chap had met us in Flores two days before. So much for that plan. Captain identification was handy though, pointing us over to where the Guarda station was, noting that they had non-murky water there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInstant amigos, instantly sharing their dinner with us. I mean, who does that?

At the Guarda station, Erik and I waltzed in and sat down. Striking up conversation in our average Spanish, the at first standoffish Guardas quickly lightened when they heard we had no guide and had come in on our own. They gave us coffee, and fed us some tasty corn tortillas with butter. They even challenged us to a game of basketball in the morning. We shared our cheese with them while they continued force feeding us, saying they wanted us to “get really heavy” to give them an advantage in the game.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey might need to feed us a liiiiiittle more.

While we were eating, one of the Guarda’s asked where our tent was. Pointing it out to them, they picked it up and asked where we’d like to sleep. Seriously? Seriously. I offered to come give instructions, but they insisted that we sit and gain weight while they figured out how to build our tent. 5 minutes later, our tent was set up for us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…and only 2 clips out of place! What a welcome!

Not having to worry about water or food rations anymore (they offered to continue fattening us up), and having missed sunset on La Danta, Erik and I decided to stay the whole next day to explore the area.

Retiring early to get a restful nights sleep didn’t quite work out as planned. Apparently my attractiveness to ticks remains strong. Very strong.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhiskey tick removal.

With no tweezers available, I used the scissors in my Leatherman to pinch the little jerks and pull them out. Then crushed them. Then noticed that the ticks come in a variety of sizes, with little tiny ones mixed in too. By the end of the tick session I was getting pretty good at it. 40+ ticks. Two and a half hours of tick removal later, I was finally able to go to sleep in my tent that the Guardas had set up for us. Ernesto had started sawing longs long ago.

Day 3: April 26, 2013 – Exploring El Mirador & laying in hammocks

I tick checked myself over again before breakfast and, once all clear, joined the Guardas and Erik for breakfast. Beans, sardines in tomato sauce and tortillas. And lots of it. Too much really, but with only a little left we split it in two and ate half each. Except Erik didn’t eat his half. Not wanting to be impolite and waste food, I stuffed down the last stack of beans and tortilla to finish it off. I was full. Very full.

Erik felt a little uncomfortable taking their food, and wanted to offer the guys some cash to compensate. I was in agreement, though I would have offered it before we left, not in the middle of our stay. Regardless, we offered 100 Quetzals and Guarda Josue (Ho-sway) accepted.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday was the day to explore El Mirador, and Guarda Josue offered to tour us around. It was also the day to eat some cactus.

Back while I was in Mexico, a friend offered me some peyote. Peyote is a cactus that has some mind opening effects, used by Mexican natives for hundreds of years in ceremonies. I was told to take it when somewhere special. I figured visiting the largest pyramid in the world after a difficult journey out was a sufficient degree of special.

Mixing the green pulverized plant with water, we drank it back. It tasted TERRIBLE. Feeling like a blimp already from breakfast, the flavour wasn’t helping me get it down. Regardless, we both managed to drink it all and began waddling around El Mirador, following Josue to explore the other pyramids and structures that exist there. Only 10 percent of Mirador has been unearthed, so much of the large pyramids simply look like large, tree-covered mounds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven when less mound-like, walking up pyramids is hard work

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMe and Ernesto on top of “La Tigre”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGoing downhill fast

It was a beautiful day, though warming up fast. After almost an hour of walking around, the combination of the heat, the exercise, the large quantity of breakfast in my belly and, perhaps most importantly, the cactus slurry sloshing around on top, eventually took its toll.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome toll to pay. I did manage to avoid getting any on my shoes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI immediately felt better, though the cactus was already taking effect. I immediately pondered how this might affect the rest of the day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHopefully not spent in this tomb.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur tour ended soon after. I was now calling Erik “Ernesto” constantly, and Ernesto now felt like a cactus and was moving slowly.

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We relieved Josue of his tour guide duties. Both Ernesto and I felt a strong desire to lay in hammocks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat’s nice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat’s really nice

I felt incredibly pleasant the rest of the day. Ernesto, not having vomited up any of his cactus, was notably more affected by it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Pssst, look what I found”. Apparently these were helicoptered in. If we decide to make a run for Mirador, we can siphon gas from these.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI let Ernesto use my camera. I now have 50 photos of this turkey.

Aside from taking photos of a turkey for hours, the rest of the afternoon was spent talking and exploring without a hitch. Oh, except for the hitch.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWater heavily falling from the sky counts as a hitch.

I distinctly remember thinking on the way in how screwed we would be if it rained. The dried mud on the trail was difficult enough. WET mud would be unfathomable to navigate, never mind the wet roots and trees covered in it. This rain… this was a bad thing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe knew whiskey was a good idea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo save space/weight for the hike in I had left the tent fly on the bike (I know, I know). Very lucky for us there was a tarp set up with space underneath.

One of the guides had told us not to worry, “it doesn’t start to really rain until May”. Being the 26th of April, this was little consolation to us. The rain absolutely poured on us for over an hour before the sky started to clear. The only good that came from the storm was that it washed some of the haze out of the sky.  Sunset at the El Dante pyramid would be good that night. Our ride tomorrow… well we didn’t want to think about.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe hike to El Dante was about 30 minutes from camp… It took us around 45.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHello trees!

When we finally did arrive at “La Danta”, it was pretty impressive. And steep. Climbing up the front face pyramid is strictly forbidden since someone fell doing so years ago.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANo don’t, that’s forbidd… ok, looks like fun, wait for me!

There are stairs built up around back, but climbing up the front face was far more enjoyable. Once up top… well worth the trip.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUp on top of “La Danta”. Turns out riding to the top on a motorcycle was forbidden too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou can see it all from up here. The trees and mounds with trees I mean.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe difficulties getting here, getting to the top of La Danta, really made it that little bit more special. As the sun set, sipping some whiskey, looking over the jungle with my new motorbike amigo Ernesto… this was one of those moments.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy photostitch never works properly. You get the idea, magnificent and wonderful and all that.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGuarda Josue motioned that we should get going. Walking in the jungle at night is dangerous… and of course also against the rules.

But soon “walking in the jungle at night” we did, and it allowed us to see our favorite green-eye glow bugs. Tonight they were downright spectacular for some reason. Almost worth the trip in Guatemala just to see these guys.

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Josue also pointed out a tarantula home. Neat stuff!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATarantula door open…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…tarantula door closed

Josue was walking with a mildly irritating American girl, and the two of them were far faster than Ernesto was capable of. This wouldn’t have been a problem, except my headlamp was broken, and Ernesto’s batteries were fading fast. It gets dark quickly in the jungle. Josue and the American would keep taking off again with their lights. We walked most of the way back slowly, using our feet to read the braille of the jungle floor.

Dinner was served upon our arrival back to camp, again frijoles (beans) and tortillas, with some rice. Like the walk home, dinner wasn’t trouble free; Ernesto was having trouble with his Frijoles.

“Los frijoles bailar” Ernesto explained to myself and our hosts. The beans are dancing. I looked at my beans; no dancing.

“I can’t eat them when they’re dancing like that”.

Ernesto picked out the dancing beans and threw them over his shoulder, then went back to eating dinner.

We never did play a game of basketball with the Guardas.

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Day 4: April 27th, 2013 – The triumphant return from El Mirador

We got a very early start, but made time for breakfast.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe beans, almost disappointingly, were no longer dancing at breakfast.

After yesterdays rain, we had no idea what lie ahead for us. Regardless, we wanted as much time as possible to deal with it. After breakfast, we said goodbyes and thank yous, filled our waters, packed quickly and set out at a brisk pace. Regardless of the condition it’s in, we had a long road ahead.

Our attempts at hiding the motorbikes had failed. A couple hours into the hike out we met a tour group hiking in. “Are you the crazy Canadian bikers?! We saw your bikes, don’t worry, we didn’t steal anything, just lifted the cover to take a look and see the plates”. They were excited and seemed friendly enough. Still, when I took a glance at their mules I couldn’t help but look for the outline of motorcycle parts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANo exhausts or suspension parts in their bags, we’re ok.

After taking 6 hours to hike in, we made it back to the bikes in a little over 4 hours. The main difference being that we hadn’t been stopping to re-arrange logs. We were riding back out the way we rode in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…but first some repairs to Ernesto’s brake pedal. Missing bolts are bad.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFears of the road having turned to mud were unfounded. Still had some awkward bits though.

The path was not mud. This we were incredibly thankful for. The ride out found us riding over obstacles better and generally faster than our way in. Practice makes perfect. The 6km jaunt back to Tintal was quite quick.

After a quick lunch stop to say hello again to Guarda Lionel and refill our waters, we set back out on the road. (P.S. He very much enjoyed the macaroni and cheese we left him.)

I was following behind Ernesto, and for the most part I was right on his tail. We were making good time. Even when a bike got hung up on a log or otherwise, we were efficient at getting them unstuck and back rolling. In doing so, I noticed how light my tank felt, and knew gas would be tight. Fortunately I had a spare 5L gas can that was still dangling off the back of an ammo can, despite the beating it took on the way in.

We stopped for a quick break and to let the bikes cool down after some difficult bits.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhich root shall I take?

We set forth once more, Ernesto out front, me right behind and both making good time yet again. Up over a rise and around a corner, then a short 5 meter diversion in the trees around a fallen log. I didn’t make it. ‘Jugs’ sputtered and ran out of gas before I got back to the trail. Flipped to reserve, but the bike wouldn’t start up. I tried cranking it over a few more times, but not wanting to have a repeat tow job, I gave it a rest to save the battery. Was my reserve switch not working? Either way, on reserve I wouldn’t have enough gas to get back to Carmelita. I unlocked the gas can, put the lock on top of my bike and pulled the can out of the disheveled cage. The gas can got caught on something, and the force of the snag resulted in my bike tumbling over onto its side. Darn it. Picked the bike back up and poured half the gas can in. After putting the gas can back in its cage, I stood up into a branch; soundly connecting my skull to the rough bark. Darn it! And now where did that lock go? Darn it! And what the heck is going on, I’ve been dealing with this for the last 10 minutes, where the heck is Ernesto?! DARN IT! I walked up the trail a ways to see if I could see him. Right after the diversion, the trail became quite smooth and nice for a ways. Maybe he had gotten up ahead a bit and knowing we were short on gas didn’t want to ride back?

The missing lock had launched off the bike into the leaves on the ground that were conveniently the same golden colour. Given that the lock was all that was actually holding the gas can on the bike, I needed that lock. 10 more minutes of searching on my hands and knees and much swearing later I found the lock not 5 feet from the bike. And where the hell is Ernesto, seriously? I could have my leg caught under the bike for all he knows! Darn it all!

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After about 20 minutes of being stranded, I finally got my bike started again and started to make up ground on Ernesto. The trail was indeed nicer in this section, so perhaps he did just get way ahead. But 20 minutes?! You’d think he’d notice I wasn’t behind him. Wait, what if he thinks I passed him somehow and is he is trying to catch me? Geez he could be ages ahead.

I rode for 4Km thinking angry thoughts about how Ernesto could possibly have left me behind before it suddenly dawned on me that maybe I had left HIM behind. It was nearly impossible. I was following him, and almost always within sight. But maybe in that moment where he turned the corner something happened and I somehow passed him, then ran out of gas moments later. No. Not possible. I was right behind him. But maybe? I don’t know. If I did somehow pass him, then run out of gas and dick around for 20 minutes, and now I’m 4km up the road…

He could have HIS leg stuck under HIS bike. I suddenly had a sensation of panic. What if I’m the asshole who just left HIM behind? I had to go back to check.

I stopped and wrote a note in case Ernesto was up ahead and came back. At least he could save a bit of gas. Then my kickstand sank in the clay and the bike fell over.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAre you freaking kidding me right now?!

Without Ernesto there to help lift the bike while I got the kickstand up, I was left digging a hole in the compacted clay-based dirt. This is insanity. I’m not sure where my friend is, I’ve gone from thinking he’s a total ass to realizing maybe I’m the asshole and he’s stuck in some thorns, and now I’m trying to dig a hole in the toughest dirt on earth. DARN IT!

Finally able to get the kickstand up, I threw any extra weight I could into a pile and put the note on top. I really, really, really hoped I would come back to find Ernesto reading that note.

I didn’t.

About a kilometer backtracking down the road, I found Ernesto riding towards me.

“How do you feel about yourself right now?” he asked.

The answer didn’t matter. For the last hour or so every angry thought I had towards Ernesto for abandoning me should have been pointed at myself. Those thoughts were certainly justly pointed towards me from his side. I apologized and explained what had happened from my end. Ernesto seemed surprised to hear about me running out of gas and being stuck myself, but he just wanted to ride: “Let’s just go”.

We stopped briefly to pick up my stuff and repack my bike. The previously triumphant mood from making good time after an epic trip had turned palpably sour. Not much more was said. It was a somber ride. I had left him abandoned stuck on the trail after all.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGot gas?

Once in Carmelita, we parked the bikes and asked around for much needed gasoline. Even with all that happened, we still made it out in ok time. We could still make it back to El Remate in daylight. Some kids eventually sourced some gas for us at a much inflated price. At that very moment, I noticed my jacket was gone. Darn it!

After initially thinking someone had stolen it, I realized that it could have fallen off after I repacked the bike mid trail. I had been hurrying, perhaps I didn’t strap it down very well? A very brief discussion followed. Ernesto would carry on after he found some gas, possibly meeting down the road. I would go back for the jacket. It was getting late, and we had a long dirt road ride still ahead of us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAngry relief.

I found my Jacket 3km back up the trail. I rocketed there in a third of the time it had taken us to ride it before. I was racing the sun, and did not want to be stuck on the dirt road at night. I was already tired enough as it was, and had lost my glasses I wear for night riding along the trail days before.

The gas boys told me that Ernesto had left about 15 minutes ago. Off I went, rocketing down the gravel road and under the Carmelita barricade for a fourth and final time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ll miss you, Carmelita barricade.

Not rocketing for long though, as I soon ran out of gas. This time I switched to reserve while still rolling and even still the motor quit. That’s a problem. I poured the rest of the gas from the gas can in, carefully keeping track of the lock this time. That gas got me to our beer stop from our first day, where I was able to buy their last Gallon for 50Q (6.25$US). Previous roadside inquiries all led me to this one and only gas vendor, haggling was not tolerated well.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA very welcoming sign. (we sell gas)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASelf serve gas to boot.

Before leaving, I asked if they had seen another motorbike like mine pass through. They had, about 20 minutes prior. Good. I knew Ernesto was still ahead. I continued to check that he was still in front of me with anyone I passed standing beside the road. I even stopped at other barricades to ask them. Turns out all the other barricade men weren’t charging after all, just security/traffic control. And they had all seen Ernesto pass by. Good. There was still a bit of daylight, and I was getting closer to pavement.

It wouldn’t be an adventure if it didn’t have one final twist. And on that final twist, I was going too fast. I hit the dirt going about 40km/h, after skidding out a bit then going high side off the bike. I was injury free, but concerned about losing gas from my leaky gas cap. I ran to jugs and got it upright quickly. So quickly that it fell right over on the other side. Darn it!!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt had already been down on both sides. I wasn’t pushing it over again for a stupid photo.

I was exhausted, going too fast and making mistakes. I used my foot to bend my pannier frame back into a shape that would hold the boxes out, and continued home. I thankfully made it to pavement before sunset, and I arrived alive at home an hour and a half later, well after dark. I walked in to find Ernesto showing off his ball rash to the girls. Things were going to be ok.

20130428-DSC03024Ernesto’s ball rash was far worse than my ball rash.

20130428-DSC03022There’s no laundry service in El Ramate, FYI. (though the fruit stand lady will do it if you ask nicely)

How did I leave Ernesto behind?

We’ve discussed this several times since our Journey to El Mirador. What we’ve pieced together:

Ernesto went over the rise, turned the corner and chose one of a few path options. On the path he chose, he got hung up on a log. I immediately passed him on a different nearby path. Any of these diverting paths all very soon after meet up with each other. I didn’t even notice the other paths. Ernesto watched me go by, even honked his horn. I didn’t see or hear him. Seconds later I ran out of gas.

While I was dealing with my gasoline issues, Ernesto was trying to free his bike himself. He figured I had seen him and would come back to lend him a hand. He continued trying to free himself for a good while. When he realized he would not be able to get unstuck on his own, he started to walk up the trail to find me for some help. By this time, I had solved my issues and taken off, thinking I was still chasing him down the trail.

He walked about 1.5km up the trail, on an ankle that was injured after getting hung up on a root. When I wasn’t anywhere to be found, he walked back, muttering profanities in my direction I’m sure. Ernesto used a small tree to pry his bike off the log, tearing apart his stock plastic skid plate in the process. Now freed, he continued up the trail behind me. Eventually he met me on my way back to look for him.

We are still friends, and that is the only reason why: when we met up again I was going back to look for him. There was no one else who would have come by to help had he been seriously injured. Fortunately, we’ll have the chance to go for another adventure in the future. Just have to let that jungle ball rash heal up first.

After a much needed shower, I found three more ticks. Darn it all!!

El Remate

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E:  Our last day in Belize we had stayed in a small border town called San Ignacio. There wasn’t much here except a very old church and a really good burrito stand in the main square. I had a hard time finding accommodation that wasn’t a fortune and settled on a campsite a few blocks out of town which had some cabanas for rent. The broken down cabin still ran us $25 for the night without internet or hot water. Yikes! There was also the matter of the scorpion we found scurrying along the floor of the cabin when we returned from our burritos. I quickly dispatched the pesky anthropod with the bottom of Tanya’s sandal. It died pretty easily and I was surprised at the amount of sticky goo that emanated forth from its smooshed body. It was brown in colour so I wasn’t too bothered by it. We were told by locals that the translucent yellow scorpions were the ones to watch out for. However, after doing some research I learned that there are only 25 species out of 1500 which have enough venom to kill a human being.

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At breakfast the next morning, through the door of the restaurant, I saw a white girl taking a rain cover off her motorcycle. As I looked closer, I saw that her bike was an old model KLR and she had panniers and a rear box installed. Wow! She was on an overland trip like me. Tanya paid the bill as I ran outside to say hi. “Are you travelling alone?” I asked because I was both excited and shocked to think of a female doing this trip solo. “No,” she responded, “I’m travelling with my brother,” she gestured down the street with her head. I saw a tall bloke with a massive beard in full riding gear jumping aboard his old model KLR. She handed me a personalized business card which told me her name was Jayne and her brother was Phil, both Canadians, and they were riding from Alaska to Ushuaia. “Awesome,” I exclaimed. I told them I was Canadian and was riding a KLR too! We chatted for a few minutes but her brother looked ready to get