Monday, 1 February 2016

One more month, two more countries


I can't believe how quickly time flies when we're on the road. Since I last wrote anything here we've passed clean through two countries and neither particularly quickly.
 
 
Upon leaving the Oaxaca coast we headed further east towards San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. I was keen to ride through here as Oaxaca and Chiapas were the places I skipped last time when I was with Sharen, with our last minute change of plan and dash back to the warmth of Quintana Roo.

The ride to San Cristobal involved riding across some open plains covered as far as the eye can see with wind turbines. That should have been a clue as to what was to follow, along with the frantically waving officer in a police car heading in the opposite direction, shaking his head and indicating for us to turn around and a rushed conversation in Spanish that we didn't fully understand with a tuc-tuc driver at a red light. The next twenty miles or so was hell. The strongest crosswinds we've experienced yet, we rode at what felt like close to 45 degrees, each successive gust seemed stronger as we fought to keep our bikes on our own side of the road and out of the path of oncoming semis. We made it, my nerves shot to pieces and later discovered that we'd only caught the start of the storm. Other riders we met later who came through the same way in the following days reported that conditions only got worse. One couple ended up riding through under police instruction alongside a large truck which was used as a windbreak. I'm not sure if that would have appealed, given the large number of similar trucks we've seen on their sides in ditches after losing their battle against the wind.

It was also on the way to San Cristobal that we met the first of the infamous road blocks. In this case an unruly mob had barricaded the road with dirt and rubble, forcing everyone to take a detour into their 'toll' lane. Traffic moved slowly, I presume as each successive person argued against paying. When we made it to the head of the queue Evan debated for several minutes with the protesters but to no avail. Eventually we switched off our engines and a guy who could speak English came to try his luck. He explained to us that they were collecting money to build a school and eventually dropped his demand to just 50 pesos (less than $3 USD) for us both so we reluctantly paid and were on our way. It was frustrating though. I highly doubt these people were teachers or parents and to extort money in such a way doesn't sit right with me. If their cause was genuine, as we tried to explain to them, we'd be more likely to donate, but not when money is demanded in such a way. Our efforts fell on deaf ears.

A few towns further along the road had been blocked with large lumps of concrete and other debris and again we were forced to detour down rocky back roads. This time though we arrived just as the protest was starting and no money was being demanded. We sat outside an Oxxo store and talked with a very friendly local man who tried his best to explain their cause (we later translated a document he gave us and it was about promises about healthcare, children's services and road maintenance made by the local government that hadn't been kept) before we continued on our way.

San Cristobal was a nice enough colonial town, a lot like a lot of others. We stayed a few days and during this time went to see the new Star Wars movie on opening night in 3D, in English and with only about 20 other people. Best of all it cost us less than $4 USD each!
 






One of our reasons for staying so long in San Cristobal was because this was where we had our first big 'what's the point of all this?' talk. It started with a comment about money and how much we were spending and ended up being a long discussion about what we both hoped to gain from this trip. One thing became clear – neither of us we were feeling satisfied, things had become routine and tedious.

I think now is a good time to point out that a trip like this is hard work. People constantly remark that 'it must be amazing' or 'you're so lucky to be so free and on this trip of a lifetime' but the reality is very different. It's fun, of course it is, but it's also bloody hard work. At the end of the day when we're tired both mentally and physically, we still have to find a place to stay that has parking, often in a language we don't understand. We have to keep up with bike maintenance, trying to work out where we're going to get the next part we need in a place where big bikes like these are far from common. We have to be careful how much we spend because there's nothing coming in to replace it. We have to deal with the realities of life on the move and as well as all the fantastic people we meet there are the noisy, antisocial ones who happen to be in the room next to us when we desperately need a good nights sleep. There are also the other noises that are impossible to control – barking dogs, roosters, firecrackers at 4am, church bells, bin men doing their rounds at 5am. In short, life on the road isn't all roses.

And so we had a long chat and came to the conclusion that 1) we were spending more than we had anticipated, 2) that we were in desperate need of some Spanish lessons and 3) that the bikes we have are the wrong bikes for Central and South America, they're just too big. This said, coupled with our growing feelings of dissatisfaction at simply getting up, riding all day, sleeping and repeating, we decided that we wanted to focus on quality of experience over distance. Getting to South America would mean using a chunk of money that neither of us want to spend, not with these bikes, and so we came to the conclusion that riding only as far as Panama and then turning around and riding back to Canada in the spring was a much better plan.

With Christmas fast approaching, we decided to make a run for Chetumal and cross into Belize. Having been to Belize a couple of times before, there was only one logical place to head for – Hopkins. The border crossing was simple enough. They all are so long as you're patient and arrive early enough. It took a little longer to ride down to Hopkins, taking alternative routes through the north of Belize on the advice of some concerned locals and then dodging potholes on the Hummingbird Highway. It hadn't occurred to me that this was where the trip idea began until we were riding down that road. Upon arrival in Hopkins we headed for the Dodo and decided to stay there a night before looking for a free camping spot the following day. As per usual a few days turned into two weeks. We met some lovely people at the Dodo and ended up camping across the road from the hostel until our insurance ran out. It gave us some much needed down time, a chance to fix an issue with my fuel filter and a chance to catch up with friends we'd made there previously. Emma, the Swedish girl who rented us the little dirt bike on our last visit, kindly invited us to a potluck dinner on Christmas day with a mixture of locals and ex-pats. It was a great opportunity to see first hand the local politics of the place. Later she also kindly let us use her workshop to fix an issue I had with my fuel filter. For New Year we partied at Windschief with a group of hostel residents and locals after enjoying some of the best fish and chips I've ever had.
 





 
Upon leaving Belize we headed straight for Flores. Again, the border crossing couldn't have been more simple. I really don't get why people get so het up about them. Get yourself stamped out, get the bike stamped out. Cross no-man's land and stamp yourself in, followed by the bike. It's a piece of cake even with very limited language skills. Unfortunately the weather wasn't on our side this time. From the time we left Hopkins until our arrival in Flores, it poured. Luckily the road from the border to Flores is now 90% paved, but even so the rain made life difficult. I narrowly avoided dumping my bike after having to brake hard for a pig that ran out in front of me. We were soaked through by the time we arrived so we parked the bikes and Evan stayed with them while I traipsed around looking for a place to stay. Having been there before it wasn't hard to find somewhere and we were soon warm and dry.

We'd only planned to stay a night, but ended up staying several. Some people we'd met in Hopkins and then again in Flores told us that a local festival was about to start and so we decided to stick around for that. It was called the Dance of the Chotona (doll) and involved lots of firecrackers and explosions, almost hourly parades and lots of festivities. The grand finale of the night was a guy with a wooden crate on his head covered in fireworks charging around the town square into the crowd with rockets firing off in every direction. The kids loved it. Only in Guatemala.
 





Eventually we left Flores and headed south, our intention to find an affordable Spanish school and get on with some lessons. After an interim stop on the way down in one of the worst hotels we've experienced yet and a ride on a particularly inventive ferry/barge across a river, we arrived in Antigua, another colonial town and tourist central.
 


 
 
Again, nice enough, but neither of us could really get into the vibe of the place. At weekends it filled up with party seekers from Guatemala City, but even during the week it was busy and expensive. We stayed a few nights, had a lovely dinner with a local guy and his wife that we'd previously talked to on Advrider and met another couple from Oregon riding a similar trip to ours on F650's. It was interesting talking to them because it turns out they'd been having similar conversations about how hard it is at times to stay positive on the road. One thing that pulls us back time and time again though is the people. I've lost track of the number of total strangers we've talked to on the street who have written down their phone number and address in my little notebook, insisting that we come and stay or call them should we need anything at all.
 



 

After deciding very quickly that Antigua wasn't the place for us to go to school, we set off for Lake Atitlan. To be honest we weren't really sure where we were heading, but it certainly wasn't where Google decided to take us. Pavement gave way to dirt roads as we entered a small village and soon we found ourselves on a cow path, complete with local cowboys herding cows. As it got muddier and more deeply rutted I lost my nerve for the first time on this trip and didn't want to go any further. Luckily we were only a kilometre or two from the highway at this point and going back would have been far worse so Evan took my bike through the last boggy bit for me (and dropped it) and we were on our way again. Roads like that make me hate my big, heavy bike and really knock my confidence. Gravel, dirt or small rocks? Fine. Deep sand, mud or big rocks? Not fine.
 
 

That evening we arrived in Panajachel and immediately liked it. It's grittier than Antigua with one long tourist street, but plenty of non-touristy areas too. It seemed there were two main schools in town and upon visiting the first we signed up for a week of lessons on the spot, and later added a second week. We debated accommodation and decided against a homestay. Both of us value our space and the thought of having to be sociable 24/7 and not having control over our meals didn't appeal, so after walking around what must have been half of the town's 96 hotels asking about prices, the owner of the place we were already staying relented and offered us a discount on the nightly rate and so we decided to stay. We ate most nights at a tostada stand for a couple of dollars and followed this up far too often with a slice of the best meringue pie I've had in a very long time at the stand next door.
 





 

Spanish school was great. We decided to go with four hours of lessons a day, but in reality this was a bit too much. It's hard trying to absorb so much information and despite our teacher Florinda's best efforts, I often found myself at overload point by the end of the third hour. Two weeks in one stretch was definitely enough for starters. We had a lot of fun though and it was a learning experience in both directions as we explained to Florinda how things work in Canada and the UK. She taught me how to say 'Evan smells like Shrek after he eats beans' in Spanish so it was money well spent.
 
 

I don't usually write much about accommodation, but we've stayed in some choice places on this trip. Our quest for cheapest often finds us in situations where in hindsight we wish we'd paid the extra dollar. Be it for wifi. Or a toilet seat. Or for toilet paper to be included. Or for the water to work. We've stayed in a couple of really dire places. We've slept with ant infestations. We've had no running water. We've stayed in places so noisy that how anyone slept there was beyond us. We've survived near electrocution from bare wires sticking out of walls. Luckily our hotel in Pana was none of these things, in fact it was quite pleasant. The owner was a little odd, but only in the usual way that we've found so many Guatemalan businessmen to be and mostly only when it comes to money. There's a tendency here to clearly quote one price and then when you come to pay, suddenly it's a dollar or so more. Such small amounts mean that people rarely complain, but it soon adds up. We later found out that he'd run for mayor twice and come last both times which explained a lot. What was most notable about this hotel though was its other inhabitants.

End of hallway – American wannabe-hippy yoga teacher, about the same age as me. Sometimes she spoke to us, sometimes she just smiled and said nothing. When she did talk she did so in that unnerving voice that people usually reserve for babies and animals. She wouldn't have been annoying at all had she not decided to sit on the floor, in the doorway to our room, virtually on my feet, to watch her hippy guru videos on her laptop. Every day. Especially when we sat down to eat at our little table on the balcony. Why? Who knows. She had ample room outside her own room. Maybe our distaste for this became apparent to her after a while because a few days before we left she stopped doing it. Or maybe she failed to make us snap and gave up.

Next door to the left – French family. Loud, French-only speaking French family with bratty three year old kid. This kid ruled the place. He shouted for his dad continuously, ran around screaming and shouting and every time we sat down to do our Spanish homework his parents would decide to hand him an ipad to watch kids shows very loudly in French or else they'd decide to give him a school lesson loudly in French. Did I mention they were LOUD? The last day they were there they decided to pack all their things very loudly on the balcony outside our room at 5.30am, just like those annoying people who should never be allowed to stay in hostel dorms do. On top of a largely sleepless night due to dogs barking, bins being dragged down the alleyway outside, etc they were the final straw. Evan stormed out and gave them a piece of his mind and I don't blame him.

Next door to the right – retired Dutch guy, also at the same Spanish school as us and a long term resident. Nice guy, a little arrogant when we first arrived, but he mellowed the longer we stayed. Various other people came and went, but no-one of note. For a place down an alley away from the main drag though, it was incredibly noisy and we had many sleepless nights there. The irony of being randomly asked at 11pm one night to turn our television down when it was already barely audible from within the room completely baffled us. On our last night a lonesome dog decided it was going to sing from 2am until 6am. We weren't sorry to get out of there.
 
It was in Panajachel that I first realised how much of a problem street dogs can be. Don't get me wrong, I love dogs and generally they don't bother me, but in Pana they roam in large packs, make a lot of noise and are quite intimidating at times. A few nights before we left we were eating dinner in a nice little restaurant and despite the waiting staff chasing them out repeatedly, several dogs that had gathered in the restaurant decided to start fighting. Later we had to chase a couple of large dogs away from a little old Mayan lady who was struggling to fend them off as they jumped up and snapped at her as she tried to sell her wares. Apparently when the problem reaches a certain level the local authorities poison the dogs and while I can't condone this as a solution, clearly one is needed. Many of the dogs there have been fixed and re-released, but lots haven't. Usually I have every sympathy with animals living such a tough life on the street, but for some reason in this town they bothered me. Their continuous noise and fighting all night, their sheer numbers. It was too much.
 
 

When we left Pana we had already decided to head for the El Salvador border. After much debate and research (and a hundred different answers from different people) we decided against extending our Guatemalan visas and TVIP's. It would have been a lot of hassle and waiting around for this to be processed and would have only bought us about 30 days of extra time, so therefore we decided to make our way straight to Panama and then work our way back north within the time limits permitted. Whether to ride through El Salvador or straight to Honduras wasn't a hard decision to make. We've heard only good things about El Salvador and it would be a shame not to see the country, especially as I skipped it last time.

First though we had to stop in Guatemala City to pick up a rear tyre for Evan's bike. Simple enough task, except when you've got multiple lanes in each direction, a metrobus system in the middle and a wrong turn means an hour of trying to find a way to get back on track. After finding ourselves heading in the wrong direction not for the first time and with no Retorno in sight, Evan decided to try and cut across the metrobus lanes, in between the concrete blocks with us only narrowly escaping into the opposite stream of traffic as an approaching police truck with its lights flashing came to aprehend us, we decided enough was enough and pulled into a McDonalds parking lot. After a heated discussion about the validity of using metrobus tracks as turning places, we decided that I'd stay with the bikes while Evan got a taxi to take him the 2km to the BMW dealer to collect the tyre.
 
Two hours later and still no sign of him, I started to worry. I'd sat on the kerb, gone in and bought a drink so I could smile at the security guards and show I was indeed a customer, walked around a bit and talked to probably 30 different local bikers who'd arrived and left, and still no sign of Evan. Just as I was wondering what on earth my options were to track him down, a taxi rolled up and he climbed out. It turned out the taxi driver had 'misinterpreted' his request and taken him to a military base miles away. Then he'd run out of gas and they'd had to push the car to a gas station. Eventually they'd made it to BMW, fighting through appalling traffic jams, got the tyre and returned. On a positive note this had given us both time to calm down after our earlier cross words and a little after 4.30pm we set off out of town. Far too late to get anywhere very much so we just rode until it was almost dusk and stopped in a place a little south of the city. The next day – El Salvador and the unknown for us both.