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"They Call Me Gringo"
April 2, 2000

Welcome to Guatemala.

As soon as I crossed the border, it was clear I was in a different country. The roads were worse, the streets weren't paved, and everyone thought my riding a bike to be a major attraction. In Mexico, I could pass through without turning many heads, but in Guatemala, I was a traveling circus.

Up through about age 8, kids only seem to know one word - "gringo." They shout as I pass, "Gringo, gringo," each time louder, as if they expect that if they scream it loud enough, I will stop in my tracks and reply, "You're right, I am a gringo. I hadn't noticed. Thanks for pointing it out. Have some quetzales (Guatemalan money) for your trouble." Some kids have added the word "pluma" (pen) to their vocabulary. They scream it, to remind me of the horrible pen shortage facing developing nations such as theirs. When I pass someone as I ride, I usually say good morning/afternoon, and I usually get a reply and a smile. Ever once in a while I come across someone who wants to show off their fluency in English by shouting, "Hey you! Hey you!"

My least favorite of the welcoming committee are the dogs. Dogs in Central America come in two varieties - the ones who calmly stand by the side of the road sniffing each others' behinds, and the chasers. The chasers, seeing that I am encroaching on their territory, run full bore after me, biting at my heels. If I am on a downhill I can outrun them, but on the hills I have to unclip a foot and try to kick them before they bite me. I never was a big dog fan, and this certainly didn't help. Sometimes the gringo shouting kids would take off running after me, but they tire more easily and don't bite as much.

Biking in the Guatemalan mountains The terrain of Guatemala is amazing - sharp, jugle covered peaks as far as the eye can see. Beautiful to look at, a pain in the butt to bike. It's one thing to bike uphill, but in Guatemala it's up, down, up, down, up, down. You can be climbing for most of the day and not gain any altitude at all. The dirt roads don't help much either.

My first day in Guatemala, I found myself in the middle of nowhere, with it getting dark, and no good places to sleep. I had heard rumors of a nearby town with a hotel, but it forever seemed "mas adelante" (further.) Finally, well after dark, I rolled into a town. I asked about a place to stay, but was informed that the only place was on the top of the hill, in Colotenango. 15 minutes of steep climbing and I was there - Hospedaje Jalisco. A hospedaje is basically someone's house where they rent out a room or two. At 10 quetzales (~ USD$1.50) it was quite a bargain, even with no electricity (the whole town was out.)feast

On my ride the next morning, a truck pulled out in front of me and the driver got out. "Do you have a minute?" he asked. He had a letter he wanted translated. I figured it was probably a note from some tourists he had met - I am often asked to look at various things sent by travelers. Usually they also have a coin from that country, and they want to know how much it is worth.

The market in full swing As I started translating, a touching story unfolded. Turns out that it was a letter from an older couple in Kentucky, who were caring for the man's newborn baby girl. She had a cleft lip, and went to the US for surgery. This was the first news he had heard of her since she left a month ago. I had a hard time holding back tears as the news of her health unfolded - a respiratory infection and high fever, recovery, and preparation for surgery. I decided to take a ride in his truck to Huehuetenango so that I could continue to talk to him. I told him that I would serve as an intermediary - translate letters between them. There was even email access in town, which makes the process infinitely easier.

Hill climbing, anyone? In the afternoon, I headed towards Sacapulas, but the terrain was challenging: rutted dirt hills with rocks and very loose soil. I really needed my suspension fork and knobby tires. My progress slowed, I stopped instead in Aquacatan, a small and quaint town, with cobblestone streets and a great morning market. This was the type of place that I would never have visited were it not for the fact that I was bike touring. The ride to Sacapulas the next day was worse than the previous. This was hard core mountain biking, and I was on a fully loaded touring bike with hybrid tires. I would have to unclip my inside foot and put my foot out for support going around corners to keep the bike from sliding out from underneath me. In the course of an hour, I had three pinch flats. A pinch flat is when the rim gets hit so hard that it cuts two slits in the tube. They are difficult to patch, and I only had one spare tube, having chucked the other in my mad weight savings frenzy. Each time I would have to select the least damaged tube and try to patch it, the repairs getting successively more tenuous.

More repairs Everything on my bike got fully shake tested that day - I had to stop every five minutes and adjust something; brakes, racks, wheels. The terrain was gorgeous, however, and it made it all worth it. I rolled (or more like bounced) into town just as my tires were flat, my repairs barely sufficient to get me into town. The first order of business was to find a bike shop and buy three new tubes. (A note to fellow bike tourers - it is essential to have rims that will take shrader stems, since the funky stems on the tubes in Central America fit in the same hole.)

I had heard from both other travelers and locals that the nearby village of Nebaj was well worth visiting. I decided to check it out for a day, but seeing as it was at the end of a 30k uphill dirt road which wasn't on my route, I took the bus. It was a wise decision.

The bus left from the central plaza in Sacapulas, but I couldn't quite figure out when. I was told 5, 5:30, 6, and 6:30. I took advantage of all the leisure time to rebuild my poor, abused bike. Wheel truing, drivetrain cleaning, brake adjustment, pedal repair - all with an audience of about 10 kids. I'm not sure why the locals take such interest in my bike. It's really not that different than their bikes. The way they look at it you would think it was a spaceship. Of course, the fact that at 6'4" I tower over pretty much everyone adds to the alien image. That point was made very clear earlier in the day at lunch, when I almost got my head chopped off by a ceiling fan installed at chin height. The school buses they use don't exactly have ample leg room, either. The buses are old retired American school buses. They've been repainted festively and had praises to Jesus plastered all over them, but they're still pretty much the same. I still remember the blue vinyl seats from my childhood.

The view from the side of the bus They certainly don't drive like any bus driver I had in school, however. These guys make Muni (SF transit system) drivers look like little old ladies. The bus barreled along the narrow dirt road, with only a couple of feet between safety and tumbling down the mountain. On the ride to Nebaj, I had the honor of riding in the best spot in the bus - standing on the bottom step, door wide open, hanging onto the side. Occasionally the kid that collects money would come down from the roof (with the bus still moving, of course) and pass by me. If a passenger along the way wanted to get on, the bus would barely stop. The routine was as follows: The bus slows, the kid hops off, the passenger gets on, and the bus resumes normal speed. At some point the money kid grabs on to the bus and climbs back to the front. The driver wouldn't slow down on turns, just blow the air horn, figuring that if anyone was in our way, they would stop. At one point, we came to a hairpin turn where a dead truck lay, its differential oil running down the dusty road like blood. Somehow we managed to squeeze by. It was definitely an E-ticket ride all the way.

The sun was setting as we traveled, making for a great view. I, of course, had to lean out and take a picture.

Nebaj was nothing like what I expected. After the hair raising bus trip up the side of a mountain, I was expecting to find a remote village, where people had uniquely evolved mountain sheep like climbing dexterity. Instead I found a bustling town, with electricity, shops, even a radio station.

In my hostel, I met the first foreigner I'd seen in a long time - a Brit named Philipa. When we met, we started by talking Spanish, and it wasn't until 1/2 hour later, when our language ability started to strain as the conversation got more complex, that she said, "We could speak Englilsh, you know."

Now where did that screw go? The next day was market, and I was determined to get up early and go shooting. I was up at 7, ate breakfast, and cleaned my camera gear in preparation. On one lens, a filter (a glass disk which screws onto the front) got cross threaded, and after the repeated jolts and vibrations from my bike ride, had become completely jammed. I used increasingly greater force trying to remove it, eventually messing up the focus ring in the process. I had rendered the lens useless. I immediately went into MacGiver mode and started to disassemble it. I didn't have a jeweler's screwdriver set, so I used the concrete floor of my hotel room to grind down the tip of my swiss army knife to form a tiny screwdriver. I then completely disassembled the lens, laying all the tiny screws and parts on my bed. Two hours later, I had a working lens. I still hadn't managed to get the filter off, though, and I wasn't about to give up.

The shoeshine crowd gathers Later that day, I ran into Philipa again. We were both taking refuge from the crowded, narrow passages and pushy women from the market. We were seated on the steps of the cathedral, surrounded by shoe shine boys. Shoe shining is a popular profession for young kids in Guatemala, and they are worse than car salesmen when it comes to drumming up business. They will follow you around for 15 minutes trying to convince you to get a shoeshine. The best repellant is to wear Tevas, although that doesn't always stop the most determined ones. I had forgotten my Tevas that day, and so we found ourselves joined by about 10 boys.

I was still determined to remove the filter from my lens. I had looked in the market for something resemblig one of those rubber rings that you use to get lids off of jars, but I had no luck. Philly suggested that I use the top of one of the shoeshine boys' rubber boots. It seemed crazy enough to try. The hard part was trying to convince one of them to lend me a boot. I was offering 50 centavos for a one minute rental of a boot, but I didn't get any takers. These kids, who would ruthlessly compete for the chance to shine someone's shoes for 50 centavos, weren't biting. Perhaps they were afraid that we might run off with one of their shoes. I finally found a willing kid, and proceeded to try and unwedge my lens. It didn't work. All I managed to do was get a lapful of dirt, which had spilled out of a hole in the boot. I gave up.

I left Nebaj the next morning. I wanted to get a full day of biking in, so I got up at 3:30 in order to catch the 4:00 bus. I expected to be the only one on it, but when I got there, the bus was full. Everyone was sitting quietly in their seats, waiting for the driver, who was slumped over the steering wheel, to wake up. The only seat I could find was in the very back. Now Guatemalan buses are like roller coasters; the most thrilling ride is in the front or the back. Unfortunately, I had a stomach ache, and I really wasn't looking forward to bouncing around for two hours. I literally had to hold on to my seat to keep my head from hitting the roof on every bump. Each time I came down, my already sore butt would slam into the thinly padded seat, and all the contents of my stomach would get violently shaken. At the front of the bus was a sign which read, "Yo manejo, Dios me guia" (I drive, God guides me) and on the back of the bus, painted in large letters, the word "Esperanza" (hope.) Hope, that is, that God didn't guide us a few feet off course and send us careening down the mountain. Hope, too, that the bowline knot that I used to tie my bicycle to the roof would hold. (Let's see: the rabbit runs up the tree and down the hole, no wait...)

The fastest way to remove the air bubbles from a soda is to keep shaking it. Apparently, the same is true for the human digestive system, because by the time we pulled into Sacapulas two hours later, my stomach was actually feeling better. By 6:30 I was pedalling my way towards Chichicastenango, not to be confused with the Chi Chi Rodriguez of golfing fame.

Yield to falling boulders The ride was gruesome, with 70k of climbing, 10k of which was through a construction zone. They had apparently decided to turn the one lane road into a highway, and were busy completely regrading the road. I had to dodge falling boulders that tumbled down from the hillside as they carved out a new path. By the time I rolled into Chichi, I could barely walk up the hill from my hotel. All I could think of was food and sleep.

Copyright 2000 Peter Birch All Rights Reserved.