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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Guatemala in 3 Weeks (Not Nearly Enough Time)

by Katie

I have noticed that the longer we are on the road, the more time elapses between blog posts. So here we are with our one and only blog post for Guatemala, which by the way, is an absolutely amazing country.

We started our time here by enrolling in a week-long language school in Quetzaltenango (Xela) part of which was a homestay with a local family. Five hour classes for five consecutive days totally jump-started my Spanish, and by the end of the week, my host mother Dona Blanca told me that my Spanish was much more clear and complete. Score! Mark surpassed me though by learning some future and past tense verbage. I only learned present tense and so say things like, "Yesterday I go to the store." In Spanish of course, but usually people get the point. We stayed with Dona Blanca and Don Federico, an older couple with grown children and grand-children, many of whom would stop by randomly for meals so we got a lot of our Spanish practice around the dinner table. We spent that week in Xela with our friend Evan (see previous post about young Evan), Alex and Mike (both riding KLRs and from Alaska), and Grant, also from Canada, and an honorary member of the motorcycle gang affectionately known as The Burrito Rollers.

Loving one-on-one Spanish class. A teacher's dream, right?

With Dona Blanca in her kitchen, and delicious chicken noodle soup. A treat since it was so cold.

I am sort of blog illiterate. So instead of actually being able to post the video that our friend Grant made, I just have the link for you. You should check it out though, he is pretty talented when it comes to putting together the travel videos. (Any advice fellow blog-ites?)

At the end of our week we all (five riders, plus Grant on the back) left for San Pedro la Laguna, a unique little hippie town on the shores of Lake Atitlan. We spent several days there lounging in the laid back atmosphere. Mostly our days were spent on the lake, kayaking, cliff jumping, boating, drinking beers in the sun. The usual lake activities. From San Pedro we all went our separate ways and Mark and I headed north to Semuc Champey. We spent two days in the middle of the jungle playing in an emerald green river, exploring caves (mostly Mark), and relaxing in the hammock on our front porch. To reach our next destination, Rio Dulce, we chose the "shortcut" route which was 100 miles of dirt roads through northeastern Guatemala. By the end even Mark was saying "hmm, a little pavement sounds nice about now." But it was a beautiful way to travel, and did indeed end up being a shortcut, as it took us 8 hours instead of 20 to reach Rio Dulce.

The entirety of the Burrito Rollers, minus Mark. Katie, Alex, Mike, Evan, Grant.

Mark riding across the rickety bridge to Semuc Champey.

"Hiking" in Semuc Champey National Park.

Exploring Quirigua, a little visited Mayan site on our way to Chiqimula.

Now, we are in Chiqimula, a slightly-nicer-than-normal border town. Tomorrow we will cross into Honduras so that we can rendezvous with the rest of the motorcycle gang on Roatan Island for Christmas. It's hard to believe that it's almost time for us to start making our way back north. We probably won't make it all the way to Panama, but that's okay with us. We have seen much less and much more than we expected.
Happy holidays to all our friends and family. Enjoy your times together. We miss you all.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Thanksgiving fish, homemade booze, and "the broom of God"

by Mark

Greetings everyone. I'll try to summarize a bit and give you a big dose of photos (here you go, Ron Z)! In general, Katie and I are doing well (still haven't gotten sick!), and God's continuing to provide safe passage (good story about this). We're feeling pretty far from home these days, as the Thanksgiving holiday came and went with no snow or family or turkey.... so thanks to those of you putting in the effort to send an email here and there. Words from our loved ones have become highlights of our day, no matter what "sights" we might have seen. Nonetheless, our proverbial "family" continues to expand. I'll start with thanksgiving day, which we spent in Puerto Escondito, Mexico. We met another couple and chartered a small fishing boat to go look for dolphins, sea turtles, and maybe see a humpback whale.

We didn't end up seeing a whale, which are beginning their migration apparently, but we saw lots of dolphins and sea turtles-- both of which are smart enough to evade human contact. Once we get close in a boat, they dive for cover. My best dolphin shot:

Our guide wanted to fish too, so we threw some lines in and ended up with a handful of Spanish Mackerel and 3 Jackfish, which he was pretty excited about. The Jackfish is the fat one.

We found out later why he was psyched, because after our trip, he suggested that we get our fish filleted and cooked at nearby stations for that purpose. Within an hour, we were seated at a Thanksgiving dinner. The sea shared from its horn of plenty.

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After Puerto Escondito, we headed away from the coast for the first time in a month. Oaxaca is in the mountains more or less, and it is famous for its obsession with chocolate and sweets, and Monte Alban: a high hill in the middle of the Oaxacan valley, where Olmecs set up a habitation sometime around 600 BC. Because of its' strategic location, Zapotec and finally Mixtec people re-invigorated the grounds. These were militaristically brutal folks-- they left behind carvings of neighboring leaders (in contorted poses, penises flayed apart, sometimes beheaded with a Monte Alban leader standing on the head. They were originally referred to as "dancers," but most scholars now consider their contotions a result of torture. I think that Mel Gibson movie was about this crew.

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Leaving Oaxaca to the east, we rode through Mezcal country.

So here's your brief lesson on Mexican booze. Mezcal is made from the Maguey plant, which looks (to me) a whole lot like the Blue Agave plant (Tequila). Mezcal and Tequila are made in a very similar way: The "leaves" of the 8 year old plant are chopped off by machete, leaving the core, or "pina". This bit is split and roasted around a pit fire for 3 days (this is where the liquor picks up its flavor). Later it is mashed, fermented, and distilled. Tequila gets an extra trip through the distillery, which, in my experience, makes it taste a bit less like jet fuel. Apparently the Spaniards helped push the development of Mezcal along (during their invasion and occupation of Mexico), when they ran out of liquor from home. Mexicans drink the stuff in the mornings and any other time they need to put hair on their chests.

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So that brings us up to just a couple of days ago. Oaxaca to Xela, Guatemala took us about 3 days. On day two, we hit a bit of a snag, which in the end, turned out just fine.

I should have known this area would have been windy. "Viento" means "wind" in Spanish, and the next couple of towns on the map were "La Ventosa" and "La Venta". The scene is this: big Sierra Madre mountains to our North, and Pacific Ocean to the south. Heading East meant the wind was coming straight from the side--the worst kind for a motorcyclist. When I saw that the wind turbines weren't even running, I knew we had a problem. I've never experienced anything like it. In the states, I've ridden in wind from a storm, or a localized area (entrance of a canyon, for example). I experienced some similarly gnarly wind on the Grand Teton with Jon and Keith once... But this was something different. I'm going to estimate a consistent 40 mph wind with gusts to 50. Either way, we couldn't do it, and it's not from lack of trying. We rode out from a gas station stop and made it 300 feet before Katie got blown off the road-- which sounds bad I know, but there was a nice flat pullout right where the gust hit her. Don't tell me this was luck, friends. She kept the bike upright, and I eventually removed our windshields (they were acting as sails). Remember, we were probably only riding 20mph. Here she is in the pullout during a calm moment.

We eventually were able to return to the gas station (this probably took 45 minutes) and were told that the wind became more bearable after 10 or 15 miles. The guys running the gas pumps thought we were weak-- "just go slow-- you'll be fine" was their message. (Mezcal drinkers). I told them they could suck it (in english, of course). I wasn't going to watch my wife get blown into the ditch (again). I started asking around-- saying I'd pay someone to haul us and our bikes 30 miles down the road. We eventually got a taker-- so meet our new friend Manuel. He only spoke Spanish but seemed to manage a construction crew or something. He had tattered rope in his truck, and acted like he does this every day. I found this reasonably strong plank of wood in a pile of construction debris behind the gas station (for a ramp).

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Manuel texted on his phone while I frantically tried to tie up the bikes with this tattered piece of trash rope he had laying the back of his truck. We couldn't quite get the tailgate up, so I ended up just sitting the back holding onto both bikes, trying to keep them from rolling out every time he hit the gas. I backed up the rope (once we got up to 60mph or so) with a cam strap. Thank you, Island View!

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We forgot to offer Manuel any payment for his services, and he didn't ask (or seem to care really). Stereotypes be damned! Of course, as exciting as this all was for us, it was no big deal in the world of Mexico. I see people holding onto objects in the backs of trucks all the time. In Guatemala, I noticed that most of the famous "chicken busses" seem to have a teenage boy riding on top, alternately tying things down and dodging tree limbs as they careen through the mountains.

So tomorrow we will move in with a middle-class Guatemalan family and begin 5 hours a day of intensive Spanish study. Wish me luck, as I'm afraid my brain has turned to rice pudding after 6 months on the road. Katie is of course thrilled, and is hoping they give lots of tests and exams so she can get an A+! Which I'm sure she will. Here she is Ace-ing the border crossing:

Until next time...