January 14, 2006

Flashback to the First Day of Biking

The Pacific Slope

We´re alive and well in La Libertad, on the Pacific Ocean in El Salvador. We´ve had some real deal adventures; I´ll post later today or tomorrow morning, all I can think about is a shower at the moment. The picture is from our first day of cycling; Downhill nearly the whole way from Guatemala City to the Ocean. Spectacular.

January 11, 2006

Hunkered Down on the Border of El Salvador

I need to make this one quick. This is the only computer in town and people are queueing to use it... at least I think that´s why this guy is reading over my shoulder.

We´re hunkered down at the "Hotel California" right on the border of El Salvador (I can see the border from where I´m sitting), have been since last night. It´ll be a couple more hours before we move on as Willie finishes recovering from a nasty bit of heat exhaustion and we wait for Brian´s rear tire to get fixed again. This time the rear cassette and bearings blew out while climbing a particularly nasty hill.

This hotel, in fact this entire town, is not what I would call a travellers paradise. There are private showers and toilets in the rooms but no water comes out of any of the pipes other than the sink; Of course the sink is missing the necessary pipes to take the water away. As a result, everything splashes onto the bathroom floor. We can´t complain though, since hitting the Pacific Coast there has been very little infrastructure of any kind. I doubt it´ll be any better in El Salvador.

The scenery is spectacular and people are more than friendly, often running out onto the road to shake our hands or to cheer us on. As soon as the tire is ready to go, we´ll spend our remaining Quetzales on water and head into El Salvador... hopefully toward some beaches.

January 09, 2006

The Pacific Slope

Now that I'm relaxing on the endless, black sand beaches of Monterrico on the Pacific Coast, I can admit that I was more than a little anxious of this whole venture. Until two days ago, I don't think I'd ever ridden a bicycle more than 50km in one go; and here I was, flying to some crazy jungle to bike through a region known for it's steep mountains, oppressive heat, reckless traffic and bandits.

Cycling out of the largest city in Central America is, to put it lightly, an adventure; it's something I'm happy to have done, but wouldn't recommend to anybody. we navigated the swirling mass of bus fumes and crowds with as much caution as possible. The urban centre is the poster child for your typical chaotic, congested and polluted third world city. It's not much more than a shapeless, swelling metropolitan mass, ringed by shantytowns, all set in a highland basin surrounded, of course, by volcanoes. Admittedly, not the most ideal starting point for a bunch of beginner cyclists; the shoulders were narrow and littered with glass, tires and dead dogs.

Now, I had a vague idea that we'd be heading downhill to the Ocean, but what I didn't realize was that this 'Pacific Slope' would be so consistently downhill. We must have coasted for 40km at a speed of nearly 60km/hr down an arrow-straight, toll highway (bikes go free) with giant shoulders. Aside from an initial climb to get out of the city, it was ALL downhill. I love bike touring. This is great. I have trouble reminding myself that we have yet to do any significant hill climbing. My tune may change.

This isn't to say that the start of our trip hasn't been without it's kinks. We've had a few mechanical problems; in two days, we've blown two tubes (Will and I), and had to replace one rear tire (Brian) which mysteriously shredded. Physically , while it's been pretty easy, each of us still has our share of minor pains and aches and we're all happy to be out of the belching city and back to the breezy coast. We've traded concrete and smog for hammocks and smoothies on the beach. This is another place I'd love to stay at forever, but alas, there are no banks in Monterrico and we've only enough currency to stay the night before we need to move on. Apparently VISA isn't everywhere you want to be.

Note: No banks, and apparently no computers with anything more modern than Windows 98. Which means that I can't upload any of the spectacular photos from my USB drive without installing the proper (and seemingly non-existent) driver. I'll post the photos as soon as possible.

December 18, 2005

Bueno Vista Social Club

Guatemalan KidsAt least part of the point of travelling around the world with no real plan is for unexpected and random things to happen. We've certainly been places and done things that I wouldn't have fathomed 90 days ago. In fact, I've been meaning to post some of these strange and wonderful experiences to this site but as of late, have been admitedly negligent.

While I'm riding Chicken Buses through to Guatemalan countryside, playing futbol with scores of barefoot children, exploring dark caves with nothing but candlelight and then standing as still as possible while tens of thousands of bats whisk by into the jungle dusk all you get is a picture of a bowl of seafood soup.

While we climb active volcanoes to peer into the centre of the earth, take cover behind trees and cars amist a strange blend of festive pandemonium, as fireworks spout in every direction from burning effigies of the Devil (It's a legitimate festival...honest.), or see the sun rise on a full-moon party on the shores of the stunning volcano rimmed Lago Atitlan, you've been forced to look at the same bowl of soup for four days now. What can I say? I've been meaning to relate these stories and more but, at this point, for me to go back and recount everything sounds far too tedious; for me, and surely for you the reader.

But last night, last night was about as random as it can get. We settled into to a crowded, but decidedly quaint Café No Sé in Antigua, Guatemala only to be treated to a performance by two of the surving members of the famed Bueno Vista Social Club. Now, I'm no music critic, but it's enough to say that these guys blew us out of the water. The music sounds laid back enough, but to watch these guys wail on their drums and blow into their flutes is something else. Incredible.

December 15, 2005

Tapado (Sea Food Soup)

Tapado Soup

From Rio Dulce we hired a boat to take us down the river and into the Carribbean town of Livingston where the pace of living slows to a crawl. I spent most of my time cultivating my love for food. Pictured is a Garifuna dish that combines fish, shrimp, crab, banana and coconut milk. mmmmm... tapado...

December 12, 2005

Rio Dulce - Sweet River

Caroline's Birthday - Rio DulceDespite around 200 decibels of Guatemalan folk music blasting out of the speakers on the bus ride from Flores, our ears (and indeed the rest of our bodies) made it to Rio Dulce intact, to be greeted by a crowd of locals selling tours, boat trips, and everything else we didn't need right at that precise moment. We checked in to Hotel Marilu and were immediately reminded of the opening scene in Apocalypse Now, of Martin Sheen sweating it out in a hotel room in Saigon. To give you more of an sense of it, Willie commented that this type of hotel room was the exact style that he'd imagined suffering malaria in. And in Ryan's words it was, "sparsely decorated with peach-coloured walls, cracked and graffitied just a little, a ceiling fan positioned directly above a single light bulb creating a strobe effect when both were turned on. And the humidity - heavy and thick. A great place for malaria; a perfect place to die from it." Get the picture?!

However ropey our surroundings, we awoke refreshed the next day, my 28th birthday, and stormed a nearby thrift store for bargains and birthday presents before crossing the river to check into the Hotel Backpackers, a friendly riverside guesthouse affiliated with an orphanage called Casa Guatemala. Deciding it would be a nice treat to potter about on the river for the afternoon, I enquired about the possibility of taking a boat out by ourselves instead of signing up to an organised tour, but evidently this was a comical and unconventional idea and the staff laughed in my face! However, before their giggles had died down a cheeky tour guide called Eric had contacted his people and found us a boat to rent - a lancha emblazoned with colourful paintings of wildlife and the words 'Jungle Tours'. We set sail and scouted the mouth of Lake Izabal via the Spanish fort, picked out our favourite sailboats of the many hundreds docked in the area, then ventured into the dense foliage of a tiny tributary of the main river. We paused before entering, lest we damage our borrowed boat in any way, but proceeded after Brian rightly pointed out that, "this boat's got jungle tours written all over it!" Our group escaped unscathed only for Captain O'Neill to pull the choke slightly too hard so that it actually came off in his hand. Oops. But needless to say he soon got us moving again.

My birthday treat that evening was a slap up meal at a local riverside restaurant courtesy of my lovely family (they contacted Ryan via this website and promised they'd reimburse him for the cost, bless them!), after which we plotted up on the deck outside our hotel and celebrated with copious amounts of rum and coke. We stuck it out until 3.30am, a sun umbrella sheltering us from the tropical showers that threatened to drown us in our seats. It was only when we decided to crash out that we realised a moody-looking security guard had been lurking just a few feet from us, a sawn-off shotgun carried nonchalantly in his hand. Nice to know someone's got your back.

- Caroline

December 09, 2005

Tikal

Tikal

There's nothing quite like a sprawling ancient city to make you squirm under the weight of history on your shoulders. There are plenty of cities out there that can do it to you, they don't have to be Mayan. I've been to Egypt and felt it all along the Nile River. I bet there are some doozies in Cambodia and I'm sure Machu Picchu in Peru has a similar effect as Monte Alban in Oaxaca did.

So far, this trip, Tikal (pictured above), in the northern jungles of Guatemala has been the most impressive. Even today, only a fraction of this giant city has been wrestled from the jungle; as you wander about you can see mounds of every size that are undoubtedly fantastic temples and palaces. To climb and touch these ancient buildings is to bear witness to the ghosts of lost generations and be forced to acknowledge that nothing will last. Given enough time, everything, all of it, will be swallowed. I can't help but imagine that the Spider Monkeys take this all for granted.

December 08, 2005

Crossing into Guatemala

Crossing into GuatemalaHere is where we get National Geographic. I'd heard that the border crossing we were taking was 'a minor crossing', but being a veteran of an infinite number of Windsor/Detroit crossings meant that I'd imagined something at least a little busier. It's quite possible that we were the only people to cross at Frontera Corozal that day. The guy in the picture drove us from the Mexican side 30 minutes up river to a small shanty town called Bethel, where we scrambled up a mud bank and onto a dusty dirt road.... Guatemala.

It took us some time to hunt down anybody even remotely official looking to stamp our passport and the money exchange consisted of nothing more than an enterprising woman digging into her purse to trade our remaining Pesos for her Quetzals. Within an hour of arriving in Guatemala, we managed to arrange for the 3 hour journey on one of those minibuses. You know, the kind that people pack way too full and inevitably make the evening news when they collide head on with a Mack truck or spontaneously burst into flames. We spent the ride in the back of this 10 seater vehicle and thus had a good view of people, and chickens, getting on and off. For sport, I kept a tally of how many passengers it would take. At its busiest I counted 18 full grown humans, a chicken or two, and maybe 2 infants in the van and at least 4 men on top of the van, with our luggage and a pile of produce. The women breastfed while the men carried machetes as if they were briefcases. Yes this was Guatemala, and we were getting our first taste of its magic and madness....