I am cycling to raise money for the fantastic UK based chaity Macmillan Cancer Support. Big thanks to everyone who has sponsored me so far! Justgiving is a quick, easy and secure way to donate online. See my other fundraising page, specific to the Macmillan organized part of the trip

Monday, 28 June 2010

Pura Montaña... Antigua to Xela

Pura Montaña - pure mountain, what one of the bus drivers in Escuintla warned me of, shaking his head, as I asked him to point me in the direction of Antigua over a week ago. Well that day was hard, as my grumpy-sorry-for-myself (sorry about that blip, it had to happen sometime!) Escuintla to Antigua blog entry pointed out, but I reckon it is a better description of my trip from Antigua to Xela... the gradients I have pedalled and wobbled and pushed up in the last 3 days have had me thinking back to the infamous day 3 of the Macmillan Mexico trip... although I have to be honest and make a confession at this point: the worst of them I saw through a bus window, a 20km 1400m climb around 20 hairpin bends that had my ears popping and my stomach churning for the hour or so it took (eventually I fell asleep, a pleasure I definitely wouldn`t have had on the bike).
I have to admit on some level I felt like I was ´cheating´... my idea has always been to connect all the length of my journey by bike, meaning I can go off on side trips as long as I come back and continue from the same point (apart from that for-safety-resons 100km bus transfer with Macmillan all the way back in Costa Rica)... but here is where I make y excuses and try and justify it myself and you guys: I had one day to get to Xela where my new host family were expecting me, I knew there were two serious climbs to do, the one I´ve just described and another at high altitude. I knew I couldn´t do both, and after my heart nearly jumping out my chest pushing Peggy up from the dock to the bus stop at San Pedro de La Laguna I decided to pick the one that was at least acheivable... and I reckon it was a wise decision... I might still be on that hill otherwise.

So after being dropped at Kilo 148 I reloaded Peggy (thanks again Jules for the dog-bag-pannier-holder invention.. genius!) and set off into the pouring rain... This was apparently the first day of Tortmento Alex, as I learnt at breakfast from Juán Carlos, a lovely fashion designer who is into recycled clothing - wicked- and who warned me hé´d heard newsreports of more rockfall on the mountainside, another decision maker in taking the bus for the first part of the day. I was squinting to be able to see through rain that felt like hail at times, my feet had been wet since the morning and were freezing, and gradually the rest of myy body followed.. but before you think this is another big moan-rant, I´ve got to say it was made up for by the gorgeous misty mountain scenery. I can´t really say views, because the higher I climbed, the thicker the fog, shrouding the trees in eerie gothic atmosphere (oh for the love of all things gothic!). It was my first panniered up high altitude climb, 600m over 15km to the highest point of the Pan American highway... to serious cycle tourers I´m sure that´s nothing, but it definitely had me short of breath, although I wasn´t sure if that was from the altitude or the general unfitness! But anyway I perservered, and was rewarded by a steady 15km downhill and the warmth of Pollo Campero - the ubiquitious chicken fast food chain of Central America that I´ve managed to avoid in all these months, but whose hot coffee and warm air was too strong a temptation to resist. Semi-thawed I headed along the pretty much flat 12km left to Xela where a shower, more hot coffee and my new host family beckoned.

While I´m on the subject of serious cycle tourers (as in not me!), I met a seriously hard core couple from the US on the road as I head out of Antigua (again with a stinking hangover after getting to bed at nearly 4am the night before, why do I keep doing that for my first-day-back-in-the-saddle days, maybe the left over alcohol sugar helps?!). Megan and Dan, they are a couple but not married which got us laughing about the typical Central American questions of are you married?, why not? and how old are you then? and the horn beeping, cat calling and whistling from both men and women. Megan also mentioned a hand gesture that they´d been seeing a lot in Guatemala, a sort of downwards shake that seems to mean ´respect!´ that I started noticing as well as I climber higher in the mountains... maybe it more means ´gringa loca´ or ´crazy gringa, what on earth are you carrying all that gear up this whopping steep mountain for.. and in the rain.. nuts?!´ They both had the Ortlieb handlebar bags that each tourer I´ve met other than Horatio has had... that´s got to say something for Ortlieb´s marketing or our lemming-follower-instinct... but rather than pannniers they were dragging trailers with the rest of the luggage, an option that somehow looks harder with the added drag from the 3rd wheel. They said it rides well with the low weight and they were definitely doing alright, since they had made it from Chiapas in Mexico over the notorious Guatemalan mountain range and were still smiling. After I left them I decided that my confused approach to cycle touring, of doing a bit of pedalling, a lot of hanging out, is better desribed as bike-packing, essentially I´m doing a backpacking tour with a bike.

Anyway now that that minor point is claified... so, the part of the journey between meeting the hardcore cycle couple and the rainy high altitude climb was the heavy-with-lorry-traffic strip of the Pan American around Chimatenango before heading up in the mountains through stunningly beautiful agricultural land, where I was able to see farmers working the fioelds by hand, the women in the traditional Guatemalan dress of colourful woven fabrics, the older men in belted jeans, shirts and cowboy style hats and the younger lads all in jeans and thick jersey hoodies, I´m guessing to protect from the srtong sun... Friday was a day of heat and beautiful clouds against sharp blue skies, one of those perfect days when I felt so incredibly free and lucky to be travelling.

The good vibes lasted into the evening when I arrived into Patzun after a pedal-pause-push effort, stopped to take a photo of a church and met 68 year old local Victor who wanted to let me know the name of the church, la iglesia el Cavario,and who ended up helping me find a hostel, that turned out to be run by his wife´s cousin. I met his wife later, when after taking me on a mini tour of the local mormon church he invited me for coffee and ´doblados´-folded toasted tortilla coated in avocado, tomato and cheese, delicious. His wife Naomi was equally welcoming, and walked me home after the food. They had an adopted street dog who sleeps in a plastic shelter on their doorstep and who they feed, the only thing they don´t do for him, Victor explained, is clean him. They also keep over 40 birds in their back garden, purely for the pleaseure of listening to them sing.

Patzun to Panahajel on the edge of famous Lago Atitlan was another day of mountain and stunning scenery, but also a lot of lingering signs of Tormento Agatha. As well as evidence of landslides and rockslides there were two points where the road had completely collapsed and was still in the process of being repaired. At the first point I was able to take off my trainers and walk through the shallow river. At the second it was only thanks to the kindness of random strangers, a definite Guatemalan trait I´m finding, that Peggy and I were able to make it up and over the mega steep sand-bank-foot-bypass. Arriving in Panahajel I headed straight to the wooden dock and took the lancha to San Marcos.

San Marcos has a hippie-yoga-retreat reputation and within a half hour of arriving I was chatting to a a beautifully colourful couple Mar y Ciel (Sea and Sky) and a jeweller who kept an eye on Peggy as I checked out hostel prices with my little guide Nicholas that I´d got chatting to on the boatride - it seems tips for hostel-guiding is a common earner for the young kids in the community. I also saw the plastic bottle walls that were my reason for coming to San Marcos, although I didn´t drop off my own recycling effort of the plastic-bag-stuffed-bottle that I´ve been travelling with because the rain kept me under shelter drawing at the port until I went back to the hostel, but I did find out from Nicholas´brother that the organisation who build the walls is called Pura Vida. I´m guessing that they also paint the murals I saw there, so they´re definitely a group I´d be interested in finding out more about.

And on the on-going theme of walls, the idea here in Xela is to volunteer with the El Nahual school by painting a mural with their kids. So fingers crossed for Tormento Alex to pass quickly and without damage...

Peace and big love from Xela

Antigua Guatemala... music and mud

So appologies for the moan last time I wrote, was feeling pretty sorry for myself, but once I got over the homesickness and the parasite I started to really enjoy Antigua Guatemala. As it´s known for its Spanish colonial architecture and cobbled streets... bumpy in the are a few of the classic shots of the city;

Antigua is a peculiar place because there are so many short-stay tourists mixed amongst long-stay foreigners running tourist-aimed businesses, mainly bars, mixed among wealthy Guatemalans, mixed among street vendors and shoe shiners and street artists. A lot of backpackers complain that it is too touristy and not ´Guatemalan´enough, but the other way of looking at it is that it is contemporary and cosmopolitan, it is small enough to feel safe and friendly, it´s clean, and more than anything I loved the creative vibe it has. I kept thinking of the Eagles song Hotel California... you can check out any time you want, you can just never leave.. I understand why so many travellers end up staying there, its got a pull to it.

I was certainly drawn into the bar scene after meeting Pananmanian Aldo, North American Brandon and French Franc in the Onvisa Hostal the first night...collectively La Banda de La tierra Madre... an incredible bunch of musicians who had met in San Cristobal in Mexico are making their way south by swapping their music for food (so if you see them on your travels buy them a meal or give them a tip - their music is well worth it!) They played a mix of blues and rock and at times would wander off into really long jams... Branon had some seriously impressive super-quick-finger-picking going on on lead guitar, Aldo was giving it the 60´s feel on the bass and Franc was astonishing on percussion and was a real priviledge to listen to them and Aussie Tim, who I met while drawing a more traditional folk band in the park on Sunday, became their temporary groupies for the week and had many a long night in Bar Muro listening to their sets.

My main reason for stopping in Antigua was to help out with the post erruption and storm clean up efforts going on in the surrounding communities - as Juán at Hostal Onvisa pointed out the day I arrived, if you want to do any volunteer work in a country and there has been a natural disaster, that is where your free time would be most needed. I signed up for Spanish lessons for the week too, so after my first morning´s classes my teacher José dropped me off in Ciudad Vieja which had been particularly badly hit by mudslides following Tormenta Agatha. I spent three afternoon´s cleaning mud from the walls of his friend´s father-in-law´s home, and through the monotony of brushing and scraping brushing and scraping brushing and scraping I had plenty of time to reflect on the impact of the damage on the family´s life. Strangely it took a while for the gravity of it all to really sink in on a personal level... perhaps because it was hard to imagine the empty mud-coated space I was cleaning as ever having been someone´s home. Yet just weeks before Tomas and his son and daughter in law and their two toddlers had been living there and running their bicycle repairs shop alongside. I had to try and think how it would have felt for me and my family if our home and newsagents had been comletely destroyed when I used to live in Scotland. Not only have you lost all your belongings furniture and your back wall, you have no income because you have lost your business.

Tomas´son Concepcion explained how at 6.30pm on the day of the mudslide the river of mud had knocked open their metal doors (now bent and ´locable´by a piece of twisted wire), knocked out their concrete back wall, and filled all the rooms to chest level within 20 minutes. The same thing happened to their neighbours homes, so looking out the back of the house where the wall used to be you are faced with a mud field. The family escaped by clambering over the roof and have been sheltering with relatives ever since, higher up the hill on an unaffected street. Within the community there were 3 deaths, imagine if it had happened during the night when everyone had been sleeping.

One of the afternoons as I was scraping and brushing Tomas came running to beckon me into the mud field at the back where a crowd of locals circled a couple who I was introduced to. After shaking hands and passing a few words with them, they thanked me for cleaning and I replied as a traveller I have a lot of spare time, I ought to help, and my heart is with them, then Tomas walked back to the house with me and explained that that was the Guatemalan vice-president and his first lady. I´m glad I didn´t know that before hand or I would have been even more Spanish-tongue-tied! They were doing a solidarity visit and following along behind their convoy of big shiny black government cars (incongruous amongst the mud filled streets, some still in the process of being bulldozed clear) was the daily beaten up pick up truck distributing government relief, basic meals of beans and tortillas.
Tim came with me one of the afternoons and being a big bulky rugby player worked quickly, and I hope our small effort made some difference to the family, but they still had so much to do, get rid of the destryed furniture, paint the walls that though they were now clear of mud were badly stained. But more than the stress of all the remaining work I imagine would be the worry of another mudslide. As the kindly old lady they were sheltering with asked me ´Would you want to move back into that same house?´No, but what other choice do the family have?

The Antiguan host family I was staying with was incredibly welcoming. Energetic scatty-delightful Gilda, and her three musical lads who play drums in the bars and all spoke English probably better than I speak Spanish but were very patient with my pigeon efforts. On my final day Gilda, me, Isaí and his mate Che headed up to the local outdoor swimming baths on motos, where we played ball games and all burnt a little bit, before heading into town for typical Guatemalan dish ´pepían´- chicken with rice in a spiy tomato based sauce, and tortilla. I spent the rest of the evening henna ´tattoing´them each in turn, Gilda, Che, Isaí, Isaú, all except Jonathan who had a gig to play at... but anyway, it was a rubbish first try at henna because my mix was wrong and by the next morning all of us had lost our designs. Ach weel... better luck next time!

Peace & big love from Antigua xxx

Thursday, 17 June 2010

5th border crossing... into Guatemala

So one big tip, if you´re going to go on a cycle touring trip don´t stop for two and half months painting and drinking in the middle of it... your body will punish you when you get back in the saddle (: Pretty obvious really, but I just had that lesson reinforced when I finally left Los Cobanos on Monday and took three painful days to arrive here in Antigua Guatemala ... sweating and cursing my way uphill all day yesterday from Escuintla, gaining 1500m at the slowest pace I´ve possiby ever gone (it took me all day to get up 35km of hill...shame and ouch!) I almost forgot the the Macmillan advice of keeping a sense of humour. Don´t think it helped that my belly was so full of gas that I was reminded of the whizz-pop scene in the BFG where Sophie and the giant fart their way skywards... sadly I just had the discomfort side effect rather than the propulsion, and gladly got some parasite blasting tablets from the pharmacy when I arrived here in Antigua , I also have a newfound respect for travellers´ digestive problems, for some reason I´ve always thought of those things as hyperchondria before.

So.... moaning aside, I have crossed my 5th border bringing me into my 6th Central American country, yay! It was a really smooth crossing, and I got another stamp in my passport even though this is another C4 country, so that put a smile on my grump-chops! And all my hesitations about setting off again have proven unfounded as I have got to Antigua safely and smoothly (ignoring the self-induced lack-of-fitnness-difficulty!) From the minute I crossed the border I´ve found the Guatemalan folk really friendlyand helpful, from the smiley passport-stamping immigration official who gave me tourist leaflets and warned me of the collapsed bridge that would be an adventure to cross; to the group of truckers at the border cafe who gave me advice about the highway and reassured me that Escuintla was fine to pass through (I was nervous after reading in the guidebook that it is the most dangerous city in Guatemala, don´t know what statictic that is based on); to the chemical engineer who wanted to practise his English and gave me directions to a cheap hostel in Escuintla. The only contradiction to that impression was the hospedaje owner the first night in Chiquimilla who seemed slightly miffed that my Spanish wasn´t better, though maybe it was also cause I looked like a rat drowned in mud sweat and bike grease after about 96km on the road...and was so tired I was probably slur-blurring my words, so I can hardly blame him!
Navigating the collapsed bridge really was an adventure as the immigration man predicted and it was also my first sight of the serious damage of Tropical Storm Agatha. At roughly kilo 122 of the CA-2 a huge metal bridge had completeley collapsed, a potent illustration of how strong the winds were. The only way to cross the river was by lanch (small wooden boats), so buses drop off and pick up from either side of the gap and Peggy and I joined the foot traffic srambling down the steep muddy hill to the river bank, where many helping hands manhandled the heavily loaded Peggy into the lanch. I´d seen a motorbike be unloaded just before so didn´t feel too much of an inconvenience and we all made it across safely. Both sides of the gap were teeming with food and drink vendors, and it made me smile to think that wherever we change trasport such businesses gather, whether its the ubiquitous Satrbucks and Burger Kings at train stations back home, or the gaseosas and pastelles stalls out here... though I can´t imagine the Starbucks staff plying cards, smoking a fag and drinking beer while they sell you a juice, think I prefer the Latino way! That has been the worst sign of the damage that I have seen, there was also a point with a half collapsed road where attendants were directing traffic through the single lane in turns, all the rivers were chocolate brown from the stirred up mud and there were lots of signs of mudslides and collapsed river banks.
It was incredibly hard to leave Los Cobanos after all this time, and have got to admit more than a few tears were shed. The couple of weeks since finishing the mural were even more holidayish, if that´s possible, with no cycling or painting to be done José and I went off visitin his friends and family. We stopped in with his twin brother Rocco in Lourdes where I got to see the graffiti in the skate park José boarded in for a while, we visited his mum in Armenia, she is one tough lady, I was put to shame by being the only one of the three of us not to weild the axe in chopping a huge tree trunk for firewood.
Shockingly we were brought back to Mizata abruptly after a phonecall from the family letting José know that three of Idalia´s relations had been shot by gang members in the morning at work. A father and two sons were targeted, one son died immediately from a temple wound and the other two were in critical condition in hospital. It was a disturbing reminder of the truth of all the warnings of how dangerous El Salvador is, I think the thing that made it even more unsettling for Syndey and I was how calmly it was discussed by all the family, including Vanessa and Jayro. To think that an 11 and 13 year old could discuss in a blasé way theories on how the two survived depending on the angle of the shooting is a depressing indication of how commonplace thse kinds of shootings apparently are in El Salvador.
Despite that news the few days in Mizata were tranquil and Sydney introduced us to the game bananargams, sort of a scrabble race, before giving me some tips on contacts here in Antigua to take with me along with a soft toy panda reminder from Idalia. The thing about heading off again after being so settled with a group of friends was that travelling alone slipped briefly into feeling lonely. Although once I got here to Antigua and checked into the first hostel I came across (which in an odd coincidence has a fairy-lights-coated bike mounted on its roof) I started to feel the excitement of new connections again as I got chatting to Spirals, the Guatemalan-Jupiterean jewller who knows someone else who might need help painting a mural. I was also persuaded with very little effort by hostel worker Juan to stay on a week here to help out with some of the after effects of storm in the surrounding communities, and take a few Spanish lessons at the same time, so it looks like I´ll be here til next Thursday...
peace and big love from Antigua