Thursday, November 29, 2012

Space Gravy

I’m going to Flashback to Thanksgiving dinner for a minute…..

We decided to go to an expat owned restaurant in San Pedro for Thanksgiving Dinner. We showed up, grabbed a table and waited for the food to be served up. Before long, the owners had laid out a huge table with turkey, stuffing, potatoes, salad, and all the trimmings.

I got in line right away and ended up behind some British guy. We were chatting when the servers asked him what kind of gravy he wanted. I swear to god, I thought he said: “I’ll have the spicy gravy!” I found out later that that’s not what he said. But with the British accent, I totally misunderstood him.

I was all about getting some spicy gravy, so I had the server pour a liberal dose all over my turkey and potatoes. I went back to the table, cleaned my plate, and then went back for seconds like a good gluttonous American. For round two, I poured even more of the “spicy gravy” all over my food.

After slamming two huge plates of food, I was done! In addition to the meal, I had also consumed a liter of weak Guatemalan beer, a glass of wine, and a sip of mescal. So now I was stuffed; my stomach felt like it was going to explode.

After my epic food binge, I was sitting around the table with the group that I’ve been travelling with when they started commenting on the “Space Gravy” and how strong it was.

“Wait a tic! What’s Space Gravy?!”

“It’s gravy made with Marijauna.”

“Ohhhh sh****t!”

And that’s when I realized that the Brit in front of me hadn’t been asking for “Spicy Gravy”; he’d been asking for “Space Gravy”!

I’ve been a pretty straight laced guy my entire life. I’ve never had any kind of drug. Ever. So I now realized that I had consumed an unknown if fairly sizable amount of marijuana on top of a significant amount of alcohol.

We left the restaurant soon after, and I don’t remember much from there on out. I know I got a tuk-tuk back to my hotel. I know that I freaked out a little bit and woke up a few of the people that I was travelling with to ask them what the hell was happening to me. I know that Allison, one of the people that I was riding with, walked me around the streets of San Pedro for a while to calm me down.

I’m a little jumpy around explosions that I’m not expecting. I wasn’t in a lot of combat in Afghanistan, but I had RPG’s land within 20 feet of my truck one time, and I had machine gun bullets bouncing off the side and whizzing overhead a few times. However, the real kicker was that every day I would hear the sound of IED’s going off and immediately have to get on the radio and try and find out if any of our Marines had been hit. Eventually, I just got a little jumpy. Most of my Marines and peers had it much worse. But it still left an impression on me. Definitely some interesting memories. The sound of a distant explosion or the smell of burning trash immediately takes my mind back to Afghanistan.

The entire time we had been in San Pedro, kids were randomly setting off firecrackers. So now I’m walking down the street, high as a kite, and loud explosions start going off. The first few made me jump and cuss. But when another went off I immediately remembered when two of our Marines had been hit by an IED. We had them in the LZ waiting for the medevac bird, but they weren’t breathing and they didn’t have a pulse. After the bird picked them up we got a call back that one had died en route to Camp Leatherneck and the other was a alive but would probably be dead soon. I shed a few tears over that when it happened in real life. But after that firecracker went off, I was a bawling wreck.

I don’t remember much else after that. I know at one point I was sitting on a bench crying my eyes out when I realized that there was a Guatemalan lady standing in front of me asking if I was okay. At some point Allison took me back to my room and I fell asleep on my bed.

I woke up the next morning still high and with some serious pain in my chest. I pretty much felt like crap all day and didn’t really come down until that evening. I’ve still got some pain in my chest. I went to see a doctor yesterday and he said that my blood pressure was really high (150/100) due to all of the Marijuana in my system and that it would dissipate after a few days.

So, all in all, this was a rather scary episode for me. Unknowingly ingesting a serious quantity of Marijuana, having a pretty serious panic attack, and then dealing with what feels like the onset of a heart attack for the last few days.

I think I hate San Pedro now. I was hit by a rouge boat and almost killed, my computer decided to throw itself of a table and die, and my gravy was laced up with more weed than a Rastafarian garden. Ugh….I need a vacation from my vacation.

Anyways, back to the present.

We left San Pedro and blasted up a really knarly road back to the Guatemalan Autopista....

Saw lots of Motorcycles….

And had a really fun time utilizing the passing lane…….

And now I’m in Antigua. Don’t really know where I’m going to go tomorrow. Thinking about heading up to Semuc Chempey.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Tuk-Tuk Rally and Osama’s Revenge

I figure that you can do anything you want in Guatemala, as long as you have a little money. 

After about the third day in San Pedro, I had the bright idea of trying to convince a Tuk-Tuk driver to let me drive his Tuk-Tuk.  For those of you who haven’t been to South East Asia or Central America, a Tuk-Tuk is a miniature three wheeled taxi that is usually powered by a two stroke 250cc motorcycle engine.  Sometimes they even have 400cc versions!

My idea got put on hold after my little run-in with El Pescador; however, a few days ago, I decided to give it a go.  Just to ensure my success, I took my helmet, riding gloves, and go-pro as well as rehearsing, in Spanish, a fictitious story about being a professional driver from the states who was filming a documentary on motorcycling in Central American and wanted to include a portion on Tuk-Tuks. Justin came along to be my passenger/camera man.

I literally needed none of these things.  As soon as I walked up to a group of seven Tuk-Tuk drivers and told them what I wanted, they were all fighting to get me in their vehicles.  Finally, I settled on one young hombre who agreed to let me pilot his erstwhile steed for the lowly sum of 75 quetzales, which was probably an exorbitant sum, but oh well.

Tuk-Tuks have similar controls as a motorcycle: handlebars, twist throttle on the right, clutch lever on the left.  However, instead of a hand brake they have a foot brake and the shifter is actually in the handlebars on the same side as the clutch.  Shifting is accomplished by pulling in the clutch and then twisting the clutch hand grip up or down to shift in much the same manner that you twist the throttle up and down to control your speed.   The gear pattern is actually opposite of a moto: from neutral, 1st gear is up, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th are all down.  They also have reverse and a parking brake.

Justin and I jumped in the Tuk-Tuk with the owner and sped off up the hill.  Actually, I sped off up the hill for about 10 feet before I stalled it, much to my derision, as all of the Guatemalan cabbys were now laughing at me.  The Tuk-Tuk that we had contracted was actually a piece of crap and could barely make it up the hill after I had managed to get the shifting and clutch usage down.

Regardless, we had a good time barreling around town seeing the astonished looks on other Tuk-Tuk driver’s faces when they realized that the rampaging three wheeler that had just overtook them was being piloted by a large Gringo in a motorcycle helmet.

After finishing our little rally, we were walking back to the Hotel when I stumbled across a tienda that was selling fireworks!
  Being a red-blooded American male with a penchant for all things explosive (I once blew up my friend’s computer printer with a block of C-4, true story), I immediately bought the largest looking bomb they were selling: Mortero No. 7, Bin Laden!

That wily terrorist leader was still alive and kicking apparently, and had launched his own brand of Guatemalan made mid-grade explosives.  I obtained some fruit and an empty water bottle from a friend (what good is an explosive if you aren’t destroying something with it?) and began looking for a likely place to detonate it.  After searching fruitlessly for a good location, I finally flagged down a Tuk-Tuk and had him take me outside of town.

The driver was about 16 and apparently appreciated blowing things up as much as I did.  We found a low stone wall near the road and planted Bin Laden on top.  I lit the fuse then dove behind the tuk-tuk and watched the show.  BOOM!  I swear the video I took didn’t do it justice; that thing was powerful! At least a quarter stick of dynamite.

After we finished laughing and cleaning the strawberry pulp off of our faces, I asked my new friend if I could drive his Tuk-Tuk.  He didn’t even hesistate to say yes!  His machine was in much better condition than my previous Tuk-Tuk.  After a few minutes, my driver, who was now sitting in the back seat, suggested that I drive outside of town up into the hills.  Why not?

Before long we were tearing ass up a winding road into the mountains. Actually, we were going kind of slow….these things aren’t that powerful.  Regardless, I managed to overtake a few other Tuk-Tuks and was rewarded again by the incredulous expressions on their driver’s faces as we passed.  We got to the top of the hill where we found the town trash pile.  Apparently they just burn all of their trash here.  As soon as we approached I started having Afghanistan flashbacks; the smell of burning trash is permanently etched into my brain.  It’s kind of hard to forget after you spend about 14 months waking up to the smell of burning plastic and fecal matter.


 Just after the dump we turned around and began the decent. I was laughing and joking with the kid; he was starting to get a little white in the face after he realized that I was planning on taking corners at 50 kph and maintaining stability by leaning my body outside of the vehicle.  You can’t counter steer in a three wheeler, but you can definitely counter balance!  I wish the kid had been a little more daring; he could have stood on the running boards and leaned way out in the turns.   It felt like the old Moto GP Sidecar races.  There’s a reason they outlawed three wheelers in the states….

Eventually, the kid started panicking and talking about how his “patron” was going to be angry with him, so I relented and let him drive me back to the hotel.  He was a cool kid though, and when we arrived back at the hotel, I took him down and had him sign the gas tank on my bike.

Afterwards I thanked him profusely and gave him some cash.  He only wanted 30 quetzals; I gave him a 100 quetzals and told him to go have a good time.
I’ve got a bunch of video footage from all of this mayhem.  Unfortunately, my computer is too slow to edit it.  As soon as I can find a decent machine, I’ll post it up!

San Pedro la Laguna

I like this place.  Despite the really annoying Americans/euros/touristas that are all over, San Pedro is a cool little town.  There’s a little section of the town that caters to the foreigners; it has a bunch of bars/restaurants and hotels/hostels run by expats.  We’ve started to refer to it as Gringoville.  This nice thing about Gringoville is that after a month of nothing but Tacos and weak Mexican Beer, I can finally get a decent Hamburger and an IPA with 7% ABV.  Not that I dislike tacos, but it’s nice to have a change once in a while.

The streets are of various sizes, the pavement is all cobblestones and blocks.  The entire town is like a giant maze.  After being here for almost a week, I still don’t know my way around very well.

Not to long ago, the only way to get to San Pedro was by boat.  There are tons of "Launchas" (small motor boats) criss crossing the lake between all of the towns.  The docks are downtown and a Launcha ride is fairly cheap.
The lake is an everpresent backdrop to all of the vistas; it’s beautiful!  Here is the view from my Hotel balcony:

The majority of the older men and all of the women wear semi traditional dress.  Some of the younger men and boys wear American style clothing.  It’s kind of odd to walk down the street and see a bunch of women in long floral print dresses and loose blouses carrying baskets on their heads along narrow, winding cobblestone streets.  It’s a bit like stepping back in time.

 I’ve attended two Spanish Schools here.  The one that I’m currently enrolled in is called San Pedro Spanish School.  It’s one of the largest Spanish schools in town (there’s actually a ton of Spanish Schools here) and seemed to have the best staff, grounds, and prices. 
My Spanish teacher Julio and I.
My Spanish School.
  My teacher doesn’t speak very good English; however, I speak enough Spanish that I understand 99% of what he says.  The school costs about $100 a week.  It’s worth it.  I wish I could stay here longer and work on my Spanish until I was fluent.  Unfortunately, the road calls and I’ll probably be leaving tomorrow.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Day I Almost Died: My Dance With El Pescador

We left Xela the next day, which was a shame because it seemed like such an interesting city.  The road out of Xela was a beautiful four lane highway with huge sweeping turns and pristine tarmac.  I began to think that the road from yesterday was only a nightmare, a figment of my fatigue addled imagination.    The beautiful highway climbed and climbed up to nearly 10,000 feet.  Towards the top we stopped and I rode through a cornfield to get some pictures of the cloud toped mountains.

Our bikes in the Hostel the morning we left Xela.
Right off the highway there was a beautiful view of the mountains.  This picture was taken near 10,000 feet.
We continued on the highway until we found the turnoff for Lake Atitilan and the town of San Pedro.   After leaving the highway, the road immediately devolved into a single lane of half paved pot hole ridden chaos!  In fact, after a while, the unpaved stretches began to outnumber the paved sections and we were truly adventure riding.  Without warning, the road swept around a corner and began to descend very steeply.  Not wanting to wear out my brakes, I put the bike in first gear and used the engine compression to keep my speed down.   After nearly 30 minutes, we still had not reached the bottom!  After countless hairpin turns on a washed out and desiccated path that the Guatemalans called a road, the lake suddenly came into view; it was spectacular!  I was immediately reminded of Crater Lake in Oregon; a huge azure expanse of water ringed by almost vertical mountains and cliffs which stretched into the sky and terminated in cloud topped volcanoes and cinder cones.  It was breathtaking; and it almost killed me because I quit paying attention to the road and almost got hit by a chicken bus!

Typical Chicken Bus.  These things are everywhere, even on really knarly mountain roads.
We finally made it down to the lake and San Pedro where we found a reasonably priced hotel.   By reasonably priced, I’m talking about 30 Quetzals, which works out to $3.85 a night.   It’s a great hotel too; hot water, private bathroom, clean sheets, wifi, a common kitchen and laundry room, and a great view of the lake from the balcony.  You could live in Guatemala for very little money.
A nice portion of the road into Lake Atitlan and San Pedro.
The next day we met up with some fellow riders whom we had ridden with in Baja and rented kayaks on the lake.  We paddled across the lake to a little town called San Marcos and spent some time swimming and jumping off some cliffs.  The lake is several miles wide and we were all a little tired after the crossing so we decided to see if we could find a power boat to take us back across the lake to San Pedro.  However, after finding out that they were charging 50 quetzals ($6.85, what a rip off!) I decided to paddle back across the lake and save some money.  Justin decided to wait for the boat, so I told him to tell the Captain to stop and pick me up when they reached me out in the lake.

It cost 15 Quetzals to jump off this platform.  It was worth it, especially with the volcanos in the background.
I started paddling back and got about a third of the way across when I heard the drone of an outboard motor fast approaching me from behind.  I looked back and saw a motor boat blasting towards me, with Justin’s yellow kayak protruding from the bow. 

Justin and I kayaking in Lake Atitlan.

“Awesome!” I thought, “I’m getting tired.  Justin’s right on time.”  I turned around and kept paddling, assuming that the boat would slow down, come along side, and pick me up.  After a few seconds though, I realized that the sound of the engine was not slowing down.    I turned around just in time to see the bow of the boat only ten yards away and coming straight for me at full speed!

 A lot of things flashed through my mind at that point.  The first was, “Oh sh*t, this guy is going to run me down!”  The second was: “I should really try and jump out of the way!”  Unfortunately, I knew that I couldn’t jump because I was sitting flat on my butt in the bottom of the Kayak.  So I did the only thing that I could: I threw my torso to the left as hard as possible in the vain hope that the boat would miss me.

As my face hit the water I heard the motor boat crunch into the back of my Kayak.  “Oh sh*t, this is it!”  I thought.  “I survived two deployments in Afghanistan and 3,000 miles of riding through Mexico only to get taken out by a Guatemalan Motor boat in the middle of a lake.”  What a terrible irony.   And with that I felt the hull of the boat smash into my back and drive me under water. 

“Well, any second now the prop is going to come along and shred me to ribbons.” I thought.  I bobbed back towards the surface and the hull smashed into me again and drove me even deeper under the lake.  And suddenly my head was above the surface and I was spluttering and cursing.  In shock, I watched the motor boat roaring away, not slowing down, the captain and passengers totally unaware that they had just run over a kayak and a now very angry bald gringo.
I knew I was in shock and I assumed that most of my major arteries and limbs had been shredded by the propeller but that I just couldn’t feel it because of the adrenaline coursing through my veins.  I scrambled into my kayak which was amazingly bobbing a few feet away, totally undamaged.  I did a quick pat down over my entire body and realized that I wasn’t bleeding to death and that the only major damage I could feel was a large welt on my back where the boat had hit me.

I then noticed my hat and sunglasses floating a few feet away, submerged under a few feet of water.  I dove back into the water and snatched them up.  Amazingly, my thought process was now saying: “I can’t lose my Oakley’s and baseball cap; I’ll never be able to replace those down here.”  With my accoutrements now rescued from the watery clutches of the lake, I paddled back over to the kayak.  I threw an arm over the bow and then just sat there.  I started laughing hysterically.  I could hear my friends in the other kayak yelling at me, asking if I was okay.  I couldn’t even reply, I could only laugh and wonder what in the hell had just happened.
Eventually I scrambled back into the kayak, still unsure if I was really okay or if I was horribly injured but couldn’t feel it due to shock.  My friends paddled over, full of concern, asking if I was okay.  I started laughing again and told them that I thought I was.  I had them look at my back to make sure and they told me that I had a huge welt on my back, but other than that, I looked okay.  We all just sat there in the middle of the lake for a minute.  I could still see the boat, speeding away towards San Pedro, nearly a mile away now.

At this point, all I could do was laugh.  For some reason it was so hilarious.  I had literally just about been killed.  If the boat would have hit my head, I would have been knocked unconscious and drowned.  If the prop had hit me, I would have been cut to ribbons and bled to death before anyone could have helped.  I’m pretty sure that the only thing that saved me, apart from the grace of God, was me throwing myself to the left as hard as I could.  If I hadn’t done that, the boat would have hit me square on, hit my head, and then run me down the keel and into the prop.  And then I would have just been pink mist in the water.
After sitting there for a while and realizing that no one was coming out to help, I knew that I was going to have to paddle all the way back to San Pedro.  We struck off, following the wake of the boat that had just run me down.  I was fervently thanking Jesus for saving my life and plotting the demise of the captain who had been piloting the boat; a rather incongruous duality of thought.

As I kept paddling towards San Pedro I was torn between bouts of hysterical laughter, rage, and utter fatigue.  The adrenaline was wearing off.  I didn’t know if I wanted to find the Captain who had hit me, shake his hand and take a picture, or tackle him into the water and drown him Navy Seal style.  Probably both.
About thirty minutes later, as I was nearing San Pedro, I saw the boat that had hit me coming back out onto the lake.  As he passed by I waved my paddle in the air and angrily yelled at him to stop.  Several passengers in the boat looked at me, smiled, and waved but the boat kept going.   I threw my paddle down in frustration and shook my fist at him, futilely cursing his name.

My camera was a little wet, but this is the boat that hit me coming back out onto the lake as I was still coming in.
I paddled the rest of the way back to the dock where I met Justin and the guy from whom we had rented the Kayaks.  As soon as I told them what had happened they gave me incredulous looks and started plying me with questions.  Justin had been in the boat that hit me and he said that no one had even realized it.  The proprietor walked us all over to the dock were the motor boats landed.
By this time I was seething with rage.  I knew that if I saw the guy that had hit me, I was probably going to knock him out.  Unfortunately, I had no idea what he looked like.  Justin told me that he had been wearing a Suzuki hat, so I just started looking for baseball caps and angrily glaring at all of the Guatemalan boat captains.  We eventually talked to someone who was in charge and told them what had happened.  They assured us that their boss was en route and that the captain piloting the boat was on his way back right now.

We sat down to wait.  I sat on the edge of the dock dangling my feet in the water, overwhelmed with everything that had just happened.  Fatigue was setting in.  After paddling over two miles on the lake, going cliff jumping, and receiving a direct impact from a motor boat that was probably travelling at over thirty miles an hour, I was exhausted.  I still had my shirt off and Guatemalans kept coming over to look at my back and ask me if I was okay and if I needed a doctor or something.
My back after getting hit by a boat at full speed. 
Ten minutes of waiting turned into thirty and the Guatemalans kept reassuring me that their “jefe” was on the way and that the boat captain responsible would be here any minute.  By this time I was beat.  All I wanted to do was drink a beer, kill a Guatemalan Skipper, and take a nap.  My friends and I retired to a restaurant with direct line of sight to the docks and ordered lunch.  After I had eaten half a hamburger and a Corona, the jefe arrived on the docks.  I went down to talk to him.  He was extremely apologetic and kept asking me what I needed.  I told him I wanted to know who the captain was, I wanted to meet him in person, and I wanted to see a doctor.  He apologized profusely, and told me that the boat captain had gone home for the day and lived in San Marcos across the lake.  He claimed that the Captain would be held responsible and punished for his actions.
Justin patrols the docks looking for El Pescador and the rogue captain.
“Yeah right.” I thought.  “That’s why you were all calling him and telling him not to come back to San Pedro.“    I asked him what the name of the boat was that had struck me.  El Pescador” he replied.  “Great”, I thought, “I almost got killed by The Fisherman.”  The jefe did walk me up to a doctor’s office a few blocks away, where we sat around for 30 minutes waiting for the doctor to show up.  Of course, the doctor was operating on Latin time and never showed up.  I eventually gave up and told the jefe that I would come back to the docks later and find him.  But I never did.
That night I went out to dinner with my friends, had a few beers, and ate a big plate of food.  I was still ravenously hungry, so I finished off their dinners then went back to my hotel room and crashed.  I woke up the next morning and felt fine.   Ironically, everyone else had horrible sunburns and could hardly move.  The running joke now is that if I get hit by a bus or crash my bike, I’m just going to eat three dinners and sleep it off.

This all happened about two days ago.  Every day now I go down and lurk by the docks, looking for El Pescador and the Guatemalan that was piloting the boat.  I’m still not sure if I’m going to shake his hand and get a picture or just beat the hell out of him.  Maybe both.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

!Adios Mexico, Beinvenidos Guatemala! Part Dos

So there we were, stuck in international waters, men with no country. Actually, it was just Justin without a country; my little act had gotten me my Guatemala entrance stamp.

We got back on the bikes and rode back to the Mexican side where we went through the whole ordeal again. I sat on the curb and watched the bikes and played with the little kids while Justin went back in to try and convince the Mexicans to just give him a stamp so that we could get out of their hair. After about another hour of waiting, I went over and started looking for someone that spoke English. Sure enough, after a little bit we found one guy who seemed pretty fluent.

This little guy was really, really interested the games I was playing on my phone.
We explained the situation to him and he got this "this is very serious" look on his face and started telling us about how this was a big problem. He was asking us why we didn’t get receipts for our stamps when we were in La Paz, and why we hadn't noticed that the official had given us the wrong stamp. We tried explaining to him that this wasn't our fault, we had no idea what a Mexican entrance stamp was supposed to even look like and didn't even really know what the whole border crossing process was supposed to be as no one had even tried to stop us at the border in Tijuana or anywhere else for that matter for the first 1,000 miles that we rode in Mexico.

We went back and forth like this for a while until he finally told us that we would have to go back into the town we had stayed in the night before and talk to the Immigration office there to take care of this. We weren't having it, so we told him that we wanted to talk to his boss. He hemmed and hawed for a little while, then disappeared back into the office to find el jefe. We sat around for another hour or so until they all reached a consensus. They called Justin in to the office and told him that they would make some calls and try and work something out so they could stamp his passport.

So we waited another hour while they phoned La Paz, and phoned the Immigration office, and phoned the Mexican president, just to see if they could just stamp this lonely little gringo's passport.
Justin waits for the wheels of Mexican bureaucracy to finish turning. 
Finally, they told Justin that he would have to pay a fine for not getting the correct stamps in his passport and then they would give him the stamp that he needed and we could leave. At this point I don't think he really cared whether or not this was legit or some sort of corrupt scam; so he forked over a wad of pesos and we got back on the bikes and headed for the Guatemalan side again.....where we were immediately accosted by many of the same Helpers that we had ignored before.

This little guy wanted to watch my bike for money.   I'll told him no, but offered to let him ride it.  He was really scared, but I convinced himto get on so I could take a picure.
Fortunately, things were running smoothly now, and Justin got his stamp in quick order and we were on to the next step: fumigation. Ten yards from the Guatemalan immigration office was a dude with a pressure washer and a respirator spraying the nether regions of vehicles with a thick white, noxious smelling liquid before they crossed the border. After having the undersides of our bikes sprayed down, we then rode another 10 yards forward where we paid another guy about 10 quetzales for the fumigation that they had just performed. Ironically, there was a homeless man nearby who was washing the fumigation off of every vehicle that came by and charging a few quetzales. And the chemical was just running back down the gutter and then out into a small nearby stream.  Go green peace!
High-tech fummigation process.
Next step was a second immigration office where they wanted copies of every single document that I had on my person: passport, passport visa page, drivers license, bike title (front and back), bike registration, proof of Mexican registration, etc., etc. I already had most of these, but I wasn't prepared for the back of the title or the passport visa page, so I had to run back into international waters and pay a Helper to make copies for me. Then I came back handed in my copies and was directed to a small bank were I had to pay for a temporary registration for Guatemala.

Standing in line waiting for the bank, I struck up a conversation with the bank guard and started asking him questions about his shotgun. Throughout all of this, one pesky little Helper had stood by my elbow, talking in my ear in broken Spanglish, and otherwise getting in the way and making a nuisance of himself. I told him that I didn't have any money for him and I wasn't going to pay him anything, but he continued to stick by me like glue. After a while, the bank guard and I became fast friends and he let me cut in line to take care of my work.

With my temporary Guatemalan registration in hand, I walked back to the immigration office one more time, and was then forced to go make more copies of receipts and other documents that they had given me. Finally, I came back, handed in my last copies and was given a little sticker to attach to my windshield which proved my registration had been completed. And that was it.

Justin finished up a few minutes after me; we mounted up, and prepared to ride into Guatemala. The little helper who had been standing by me this entire time finally piped up about money as I was putting my helmet on.

"Give me 30 quetzales!" He said.

I started laughing at him. "Why?" I said. "I told you to get lost like three separate times."

"20 quetzales!" He said.

I was really laughing now. "You didn't even do anything. You stood next to me for about an hour and told me things in Spanish that I didn't even understand or listen to. I'll give you five quetzales just because I feel sorry for you." And with that I pushed a crumpled five quetzal note into his hand.

He got a really indignant look on his face, and thrust the five quetzals note back at me. "Give me 20 quetzales!"

I just ignored him and fired up my bike and started rolling forwards.

"All right, all right! I'll take the five quetzales!" He said, lurching after me.

I stopped gave him the note, and then we left.

By this time it was after 2PM. We had been at the border for nearly six hours. We were both really frustrated and really tired, but more than a little happy to have finally made it into Guatemala. We stopped after about five miles and had our first Guatemalan meal: fried chicken and French fries slathered in mayonnaise. Delicious!

I think that this was very authentic Guatemalan fare.
We now had about fifty miles to ride to make it to the town of Xela (pronounced Shayla) where we would be spending the night. We figured that it would take about an hour, maybe two tops to make it there.

What we hadn't counted on was that the road would climb from sea level to almost 10,000 feet during that distance. We also hadn't counted on the fact that Guatemalan roads would be even more confusing and scary than Mexican ones, would have 20 times the number of potholes and semi domesticated animals in them, and would also be filled with thousands of gigantic, brightly colored school busses belching black diesel smoke in our faces. Ohh, and we really hadn't counted on the fact that we would be riding straight into a fog bank that would prevent us from seeing more than twenty feet in front of us at times. Or the fact that the recent earthquake had reduced sections of the road to rubble. Or the fact that the temperature would drop from about 90 degrees at the start of our ride to 60 degrees at the end. All in all, it turned into a hair raising adventure in and of itself.

The fog became extremely thick.  This picture doesn't even show how bad it was in some spots.  It was very unnerving to be riding along at five miles per hour and then suddenly have a huge school bus come lurching out of the fog and into your lane!
After about three and a half hours of white knuckle riding up and down a crazy mountain road, we finally arrived in Xela and began hunting for the Hostel that some previous riders had told us about. They had even been so kind as to provide us with GPS coordinates for the Hostel. What they didn't tell us was that they had pulled the GPS coordinates off of google maps and that they were over a kilometer off and in the bad part of town. So we spent another hour riding around Xela after dark, through seedy neighborhoods and markets, asking everyone we met for direction until we finally found the Hostel and crashed.

This was a section of road in one of the towns that we passed through that had been destroyed by the earthquake.

So, in summary, the day went like this: wake up early, puke all over the ground, get stuck in the border zone for six hours, bribe a Mexican official, fend off a bunch of crazy locals, nearly lose our lives riding an insane road into the mountains, get lost in a Guatemalan city at night, and finally find where you are supposed to stay.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

!Adios Mexico, Bienvenidos Guatemala! Part Uno

Prologue: Okay, so this one is a little longer and doesn't have many pictures (they get really angry when you try and take pictures at international borders for some reason) but it's a really great story, so bear with me.  Ohh, and spell check is not working, so excuse my speellingg and grammerar.

The night before our fateful border crossing into Guatemala, we made a pact to wake up at six and be on the road by seven.  We wanted to get an early start because we had heard horror storries of the border crossings from previous travelers.  However, our ambitions were a little stronger than our resolve, and we ended up sleeping a little late.  When we realized that it was already past seven and we hadn't even packed up the bikes yet, we decided just to take it easy and go get a good breakfast. 

The bike staged in front of our rooms.
In my infinite wisdom, I also decided that this would be a good day to start taking Doxy.  Doxycyclene (or doxy as it's commonly referred to) is an anti-malarial medication and general antibiotic.   It's generally prescribed to travellers heading to the tropics or to people who have been bitten by a tick.  I had a large supply on hand, so I decided I would share it with Justin as well.  We both popped our little pill and headed off for breakfast.  We ordered breakfast and started sipping our coffee, which they love to dose with chickory and cinnamon for some reason.  Unfortunately, the cooks were on latin time and breakfast was a little slow coming.  After a few minutes, I started feeling a little sick. 

"Damn!", I thought to myself, "We should have ate something before we took those pills!"  About that time, Justin said he needed to head to his room as he had forgotten his wallet or something.  I didn't really hear him as I was a little busy turning green and wondering where the exit was.  A few minutes later, the waitress brought out our food.  I took about two bites, decided it wasn't going to stay down and sprinted for the door.

As I was out in the alleyway emptying my stomach on the cobblestones, I heard Justin re-enter the resteraunt and try and re-assure the waitress that I was okay.  His broken spanish amounted to: "My friend.....okay....bad medicine..." Or something like that. 

After I finished, I walked back in and felt immensly better.  Justin and the waitress were both laughing.  And then Justin fessed up that he had gone back to his room to puke as well, so I didn't feel so bad.

The lovely ride to the border, complete with distant volcanos.
After that magnificent start to the day, we packed up and headed for the border which was about five minutes away.  As we approached the acutal checkpoint, about half a dozen screaming Mexicans jumped into the street in front of us, angrily ordering us to stop.  I ignored the first two or three but finally stopped when one jumped right in front of my bike.

"Where are papers?!" he shouted in broken english.

"Huh?"  I said, "Who the hell are you?"

"Do you have copies?" he said.

"What are you talking about?" I said, then I realized that this was just some dude trying to make a buck.  I could see the actual Mexican toll gate about 100 yards in front of me, with actual uniformed officials and guards.

"Justin, lets go!" I shouted, and we fired up and blasted for the gate with the beleguared Mexicans sprinting after us.

We arrived at the gate and were met by the actual Mexican officials who asked us for our papers and checked the VIN numbers on our motorcycles before waving us on.  There was a Mexican Marine on guard ("Marina" en espanol) who I struck up a conversation with while we were waiting.  We swapped storries for a minute and when I told him that I was a Marine and had just gotten back from Afghanistan he shook my hand and called me brother!  It was awesome!

After the VIN check, we were directed to the Mexican Immigration office just beyond the checkpoint.  As we crossed the checkpoint, we entered into what is sort of a "no-mans-land" between the Mexican and Guatemalan checkpoints, almost like a kind of gigantic duty free zone with it's own stores and hotels and population.  I'm not quite sure what jurisdiction or law this place fell under.  It was about 500 meters long and was replete with money changers,  vendors, and shady characters.  We started refering to it as "international waters" and wondered where we had to go to see a monkey knife fight or engage in high stakes betting on American College Football.  So many neferious activities, so little time.

Our bikes parked just inside international waters.  The guards kept telling me I couldn't take pictures, so I held the camera at my waist and snapped a few when they weren't looking.
In any event, we went to the Mexican Immagration office and parked our bikes.  I stood guard while Justin went in to get his passport stamped out of Mexico.  I sat there and waited for about an hour, fending off little kids who wanted to finger my gear, and telling the money changers to get lost.  After a while I got frusterated and asked one of the guards to watch my bike.  I walked into Immagration and found Justin having a heated conversation with a Mexican Official.  Apparently, when we had had our passports stamped in La Paz almost a month ago, the customs official had given us the wrong stamp.  He had stamped our passports with an "exit" stamp instead of an "entrance" stamp, meaning that we had techically left Mexico on October 27th and then magically appeared at the Mexican-Guatemalan border on November 11.

We argued with the guy for a while, telling him it wasn't our fault, we had no idea what the stamps looked like or where even supposed to mean, and that there wasn't anything we could do.  He argued back telling us that there wasn't anything he could do, as we weren't even technically in Mexico anymore because we had obviously left on the 27th and why couldn't we just go to the Guatemalan side and leave him alone?

Okay, we'll play your silly little game.

We got back on the bikes and fired up, blasting through the crowds for the Guatemalan side.  We didn't even bother with helmets as it was a short distance; Justin was smoking a cigarrette angrily while I laughed at the absurdity of the situation.  As we entered the center of international waters, we were swarmed once again with a large group of swarthy latinos yelling at us to stop.  We ignored them this time, but the persistant bastards chased us for nearly 200 yards until we stopped at the Guatemalan Immagration office.  We were immediatly inundated with about 20 yelling men and boys, directing us to go with them, offering to watch our bikes for a small fee, or telling us that we were in the wrong place.  Many of them even had little homemade ID cards and looked semi official.

Note the running men on the right side of the picture and behind Justin's bike.  They were literally running after us trying to help us.  I was laughing so hard when I was taking these pictures over my shoulder that I almost crashed into one of them.
Fortunately, we had been warned about these little "Helpers" who try and help you navigate the murky waters of Latin American border crossings.  Justin ran interference by laughing at them and handing out stickers to little kids while I went to the office with several sweaty latinos at my elbows trying to tell me where to go. 

These two gentlemen stood at my elbow as I played dumb with the Guatemalan Offical and kept trying to tell me what to do.  Persistant little devils they were.
I thrust my passport into the little window and stared at the Guatemalan official dumbly, trying to put on my best "stupid gringo" face.  He looked at me, then looked at my passport, then looked at the lone mexican exit stamp on the last page.

"Where is the Mexican entrance stamp?"  He asked me in Spanish.

"No hablo espanol."  I replied smilling.

"You're missing a stamp, you can't come through here until you get the stamp from the Mexican side."  He said.

"No hablo espanol." I said again, giving him the biggest stupid grin I could manage.

"Furthermore, the date is all wrong.  How did you leave Mexico on October 27th and then magically appear here a few weeks later?" he said.

I looked at him quizzically, smiled even broader until it hurt, then, with my best obnoxious american accent said: "No hablo espanol.  Hablas ingles?"

I could see the frusteration building in his eyes.  He looked at me, looked at my passport, then grabbed his stamp and slapped the rubber down next to the Mexican one.

"Welcome to Guatemala.  That will be 10 Quetzales."

"Gracias!"  I said, and tossed some rumpled Quetzales through his little peep hole.

I walked back to the bikes and Justin who was still fending off helpers.  He had a huge collection of little boys around him and he was handing out stickers to them.  One of the kids took the proffered sticker and promptly applied it to my luggage.  I laughed and grabbed a large handlebar mustache sticker and started pressing it on one of the more obnoxious men, who also happened to be the only one without a mustache.

"Here, this will look good on your face!"  I told him in broken Spanish.

At that, all of the other Helpers started laughing and I started joking with them while Justin went to try his luck at customs.  One by one, as they realized that we were just ignoring them, the Helpers started drifting away, and I was left with a gaggle of little boys who kept telling me in english that they would watch my bike for 10 quetzales.

Justin flashes gang signs and hands out stickers to the ninos.
As I was playing with the kids, I began to hear Justin's frusterated voice rising as he talked to the Guatemalan inside the office.  Keeping an eye on the bikes, I walked over to see what was the matter.  The Guatemalan official, who realized that he probably shouldn't have stamped my passport, was now refusing to stamp Justin's passport.  When I started talking to him in my broken Spanish, he got even more fusterated, realizing that I had probably tottaly understood him earlier. 

Eventually, it broke down into a shouting match between us and a short, bald, sweaty Guatemalan who decided that today he would do his job, at least with one of two Americans.  We eventually gave up and walked away frusterated.  He thought we were going to try and sneak past him somehow and came out of his little hole to angrily watch us and ensure that we didn't try and sneak into his country without papers.

We walked back to the bikes frusterated.  I was okay, but Justin was stuck.  A man without a country, he had left Mexico over three weeks ago if his passport was to be believed, and was now stuck in international waters, unable to return to Mexico and unable to continue on to Guatemala.

At this point I turned to Justin and said, "Well, have a fun time!  Call me when you get through!" and took off running. 

Just kidding.  But now we were really up the creek without a paddle.  I had managed to sneak across the border by playing stupid, but Justin was legitimatly stuck in some sort of twilight zone immagration limbo like Tom Hanks in the movie Terminal.  What ever were we to do? 

 To be continued............

Oaxaca and Onward...

Leaving Puebla we were able to see the famous volcano Popocatetl, finally free from cloud cover after our three days in Puebla. It was breathtaking to see an 18,000 mountain, nearly free from its cloudy shroud, back dropping the city that we were leaving. We stopped after we got out of town and took a few pictures, which did not do justice to the mountain.

We rode hard all that day for Oaxaca and only stopped for gas, food, and a few photo opportunities to include some donkeys that were grazing beside the road. We made it to a small town 60 miles outside of Oaxaca and stopped for the evening.

The next day we rode a back highway through the mountains towards Oaxaca. It was beautiful and reminded me of Eastern Oregon and the Blue Mountains. Desert scrub was replaced by tall stately pines and sandy arroyos gave way to deep majestic canyons. The air was cold and clear and the road was full of beautiful turns; all in all a great way to start the day.

Arriving in Oaxaca we stopped at an Autozone on the outskirts of town to pick up some chain oil and engine de-greaser. While I was de-greasing my engine (all over the parking lot) I noticed that my oil cooler was loose. Upon further investigation, I found that the lugs that attached it to the frame had cracked! I slapped some zip ties on it to hold it in place, then we rode into town to find a Hotel.

After deciding on a beautiful little hotel with a courtyard, I proceeded to do a little shade-tree mechanic work to shore up my broken oil cooler. JB weld is an amazing substance, and after a few hours I had the lugs epoxied and reinforced.

The next day we made the call to stay in Oaxaca another night so that we could see the sights, find some more parts for our bikes, and let the JB weld on my oil cooler set up. I walked from our hotel down to the Zocalo and saw the Cathedral and an old convent that had been turned into a museum.

Late in the day, I went out to see the ruins of Monte Alban, a large pre-Colombian archaeological site, and home to the Zapotecs.

Monte Alban was quite impressive, especially being situated on top of large mountain, but I was still more impressed by Teotihuacan.

The next two days found us riding hard for the border of Guatemala. We dropped down into the desert again as we neared the coast and noticed a huge uptick in temperature. Riding with full gear on soon became unbearable.

At the end of our first day in route to the border, we stopped in a little town and stayed in the cheapest hotel yet for our time in Mexico: 150 pesos, or about $11. It was clean, if somewhat cramped. However, their was no air conditioning and the fan sounded like it was about to break free and fall on your face. However, it was clean and there was internet and we were able to park the bikes in the courtyard again. It's always fun to ride your motorcycle right through a hotel office......

Today we woke up relatively early and made a big push for the border town of Tapachula. We were down at 250 feet above sea level for pretty much the entire day and I shed my riding gear for more comfortable attire: t-shirt and jeans with my big US cavalry belt buckle....which I kept hidden under my shirt. Why do Canadians get to go flashing their patriotic paraphernalia everywhere?

In any event, we saw how they mow the grass near the highway in Mexico:

We were stopped by soldiers at a checkpoint and I got asked for the third time to open my panniers.....I guess that's what I get for using 40mm grenade ammo cans for panniers....the soldiers can always spot them a mile off. I guess they think I'm smuggling about 40 pounds of high explosives around on my dirt bike.

And we saw a nice Mexican family out for a Sunday ride.

It always makes me feel better about my heavily overladen bike when I see things like this.

Our final day of border riding brought us to the town of Tapachula, a scant 20 miles from the border. On our way in we began to see cloud covered volcanos and lush tropical forests. Outside of Tapachula we found a "Banjercito" (a sort of vehicle importation officer) and received our $400 refund for not selling our bikes in Mexico. We had had to pay $400 in La Paz as an insurance against us trying to illegally import and sell our motorcycles in Mexico.

And finally, we found another relatively cheap hotel and crashed. We planned on getting up early the next day and making a leisurely stroll across the border into Guatemala. Little did we know the terrors that awaited us!