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