24 August, 2012

Day 49, 380km: Northern Guatemala

So I woke up somewhere in the jungle in Belize. I had a bad case of sore throat and tried to melt it down my throat with copious amounts of burning hot coffee. Packed the bike and off I went, to Guatemala!

Crossing the river, Belize style
The place where I stayed was just 20km from the border so that was a very quick drive. Leaving Belize was as simple as entering, very easy again. Really professional staff.
There I met a Canadian man and an English woman who were travelling to Ushuaia as well, and visiting Mennonites groups along their way, preparing a documentary on these communities. So this explains the couple foreigners I've seen along the way in their horse carriage! Learned that Amish are a subgroup of Mennonites, and that other Mennonites can live a normal life, for example travelling the world by motorcycle.  So for those interested, the basic idea is that of "anabaptism" where infant baptism is rejected and converts are re-baptized later on if they wish to.
Now from there how did they turn into long-bearded, sheepskin wearing, cattle powered furniture makers, I have no idea.

Border, Guatemalan side
The paperwork was relatively light (heaviest so far was Mexico) and after an hour and a half I was back on my way. Said goodbye to the other 2 riders who were on their way for more Mennonite adventures. I don't feel bad saying it, I think it's the first time I meet other motorcycle riders and that we don't relate well, although we talked and it was cordial. Not sure why.

Guatemalan highway!
So I was on was way again! I had no paper map, no map in the GPS (It's been 6 weeks now that I have a support ticket opened at Garmin since I can't purchase maps on their website). I had taken notes the night before from Google maps, I feel however that my navigation was rather approximate. Guatemalan people apparently do not like road signs also, so that didn't help at all.
Stopped often to ask for directions, that gave me the opportunity to practice my Spanish.

River crossing (via barge!) 
Waiting for the barge at the river crossing, I started talking with a couple guys on a motorcycle. The driver was a Guatemalan farmer, the passenger a Salvadoran migrant who spoke good English. A friendly guy, we started talking.

He left his family at the age of 15, since he didn't want to be a farmer like his dad and has never seen them since. Since then he has worked in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and USA (he was probably 35). Spent 5 years in the USA as an illegal immigrant, working in the fields for $650 a month. Eventually he got arrested for drunk driving and deported to El Salvador.
He was on his way back to the USA, slowly moving towards the north. He'd work somewhere a few months, save some money and continue his northward route.

The man was really nice, friendly and it was easy to feel the intelligence behind his eyes. And there he was telling his story of being a northbound economical refugee to me, the southbound privileged tourist. There was no anger nor jealousy in his voice, simply the excitement of being on a big journey. Best of luck Eduardo.

This kind of encounter puts thing in perspective. This Salvadoran man was looking to fulfill his basic needs. Yesterday's Guatemalan man was looking for security. And the Frenchman is looking for adventure?
Awkward. Sometimes I do feel awkward. There is only respect and sincere interest on both sides of these discussions, however I'm sure the same thing goes on in both minds "What if I got his hand instead of mine at the game of life?".
Very efficient at eliminating any sense of self-entitlement one might have.

The view in across the mountain offered ample material for day-dreaming
So I was back on my way, wondering where this man finds the strength to do what he is doing. It reminded me of the farmer I saw by the side of the road, working his field half-naked under the blazing sun and who turned out to have a Spanish looking face.
That got me thinking about this quote from Apollo 14's astronaut Edgar Mitchell (who had an interesting after-NASA carreer). (
“You develop an instant global conciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”
At my own, much smaller level, I felt the same way.

The road alternated between mountains and small villages
It was a relaxing road, slowly making my way across the mountain and countless villages. It was nice to see people were "Mayan" kind of dress (sorry if I'm mistaken but you get the point). After Belize and the gangstamen that was a refreshing change.

Stopped for a banana break, fresh from the farm!
The school and football field of one of the bigger villages
It got pretty cold along the way, made it to Coban (1,320m) an hour before the sunset. I booked a hotel there the day before as having internet and a secure car-park are mandatory for me.
Well let me tell you that finding it without a GPS was though. Found it after an half hour of asking people every 200m or so.
Again there were no street names nor road signs here and they also have the strange habit of giving the same name to two different roads. Calle 1a? En la zona 4 o la zona 1?

How streets look like in Coban, a mid-sized Guatemalan city
I had spent the day with a lot of opportunities to practice my Spanish. So I felt I was on a roll and decided to get fancy at the restaurant. I ordered a bunch of things, didn't notice the surprised look of the waitress and patiently waited. (The restaurant I was in was strangely setup like a classroom with all tables towards the TV and seats only on the side facing it).

After a while came in:
- my ham and cheese sandwich (that was my safety order in case I messed up the rest)-
- a bowl of milk and cereals (seriously how did I order that?)
- the icing on the cake, fried bananas with cheese
The waitress was visibly embarrassed serving me these so I tried a "Yo no ablo muy Espanol, espero que es bueno". She answered "Yo tambien". That was fun.

Salud,
Guillaume

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