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.


  1. Wow! What a wild story! I just found your blog via ADV and this is the first post I read. Glad you're OK. I'll be following along...ride safe!!
    Albertastrom on ADV

  2. Thanks man! I think you are the first person to comment on my blog. Congrats!

  3. Cool! check out my blog when you get a chance

  4. Hey Bryce,

    I just found your blog while following JDowns' RR. Quite an adventure you're having so far! I hope that the rest or CA and SA will treat you better than Guatemala! :-)

    Not sure if you'll be blasting thru Costa Rica to catch boat/flight in Panama (as many riders seem to do), but if you'll be spending a few days in CR, feel free to hit me (QCRider) on ADV for sponsored meal & beers. ;-)

    Safe ride!