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

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Back on the road... Huehuetenango - Sacapulus - Uspantán - San Christobal de Verapez

So the Pura Montaña point description is holding true of Guatemala - resulting in two things: seriously hard cycling and beautiful views.

When I say hard I mean seriously hard... these have been incredibly slow days of cycling, making me think repeatedly of the Macmillan challenges and all the folks that helped to get each other up the slopes in those days. One of the things that has added to the difficulty of the inclines has been appalling road surface, in some places the road has been acneified with pot holes, and at other points `derrumbas´or rock fall has coated the surfaces in fine gravel that makes it dangerously slippy on the downhills and at times virtually impossible to get a grip on the uphills...there´s been a fair old amount of pushing Peggy going on as a result. I have been trying to sing the lyrics of American Pie to myself to help seeing as I`ve not got the motivational chants of Siobhan or the random-bable of moustach-Steve, but not having enough breath nor knowing all the words doesn`t make for the best rendition! Have twice been going so slow that I´ve had the company of local folk walking alongside at the same speed; one pair of little giggly girls who said they hadn`t reckoned I`d make it up the start of the hill and later a father and son, the father was the first person in ages to warn me of ´ladrones´(robbers).

And when I say beautiful views I mean stunningly beautiful, views to make me get my camera out every five minutes (or is that just a good excuse to stop on the horrendous uphill slopes?!) and that literally gives me goosepimples thinking how lucky I am to be a-wandering so freely amidst these incredible valleys and mountains. One phrase that I learnt in Xela - 'vale la pena`(worth the effort) has come in handy in these last few days: when I come to a rest at the top of crazy slopes, sweating and panting and getting a what-on-earth-is -this-ridiculous-gringa-up-to reaction from the locals, I can explain that the effort is most definitey worth it to be able to travel through such fantastic scenery.

The land I`ve passed through to get here to Coban in the Central Highlands of Guatemala has been agricultural, save for a few slightly bigger towns where I´ve passed the nights in basic and welcomely cheap hospedajes, two of which conveniently had comedors on site serving proper meals for 10 to 15 quetzales (just ove $1). When I`ve not been eating in comedors I`ve been loving the street and market vendored food... had another cereal-in-the-street breakfast at a break stop in Cunen, doblados in the town of Uspantán where there was a basketball tournament in the Central Park the afternoon I arrived, which was a good people-watcher spot for drawing, and where I met a number of the local kids who were curious to see my sketches. The kids that were the most curious were the street vendors and shoe shiners, very young kids, around 8 to 12 I`d guess, real cases of the problems with education in Guatemala that Jaime and Angel were talking about in Xela, for example Jennifer and Patricia who were selling tasty chocolate donuts from a tray balanced on Patricias head in the typical load carrying way.
According to an article in Entremundos, Xela´s bilingual magazine, Guatemala has the highest number of child workers in Central America, apparently there are nearly a million between the ages of 5 and 17. Of that number 70 percent work in the rural agricultural industry, and as I´ve been cycling these last few days employment has certainly been something at the forefront of my mind. Firstly because of noticing the number of very young or very elderly workers doing manual labour: one job that looks incredibly hard is the lugging of firewood in huge bundles, slung with cloth around the forehead of the child or elder, so heavy that their necks are straining forwards as they slowly but firmly plod up or down the steep slopes. Another job that I´ve seen young teenage lads doing is pick axing rock free of the mountainside, one group I asked said it was to make cement for construction. The other reason for thinking about employment is that I´ve been asked a couple of times about work opportunities back home or in other parts of Central America, the questions both times coming from young men, fellow cyclists who I crossed paths with and who told me, shaking their heads that there is little work oppotunity in their area. One was making his way to work on building a house but explained he usually only had one or two days work per week. The other was very forward about asking me how much I earn in my job, open curiosity about money matters is commonplace here in Guatemala, and something I have got used to (and in the process I have realised how we Brits find talking about money embarassing or rude somehow), but the question of how much my bike cost is one that I think will always make me uncomfortable. How could it not when even at the 3rd of the original price that I paid, it cost more than what the average farm worker here would earn in a year?

Mining is another current issue in Guatemala, which is causing a lot of conflict between communities and the government, and I saw evidence of this as I pedalled into Uspantán, in the form of a big banner flapping above the welcome arch protesting against the presence of mines and hydroelectric plants. A controversial subject, mining for the government and foreign companies (notably in recent years Canadian owned) is a lucrative business and `powerful instrument of economic accumulation´according to one article in Entremundos, but for the environment and communities affected it is a `ruinous social investment´.

There are three basic stages of mining, each with negative side effects: stage one, exploration and surveying, involves the construction of access roads and wells and sample taking, having a dramatic ecologiocal impact; stage two, extraction of the minerals is where the most irreversible desruction takes place, destroying mountains, in one current case leading to the forced removal of a whole community of about 200 people from land in Villa Nueva outside the capital, after the ground beneath their homes had been removed through mining; stage three, the treatment phase where toxic chemicals such as zinc lead and cyanide are used to separate the profitable materials from the waste. The waste gases pollute the air and residues pollute the groundwater, poisoning drinking water and ruining crops.

In addition to the environmental impact the situation is made even more ludicrous by the fact that the `positive´impact, the financial gain, is not felt by Guatemala. The business has an extremely low employment rate, and as the companies are foreign owned, these natural riches of Guatemala are lining the pockets of fat cats in far away countries that to the majority of Guatemalans are as unreachable as the moon.

In recent years environmental and social protest against mining has led to violent clashes between local communities and the mining companies. I´ve just read one account of 1500 military police clearing a pedestrian bridge in San Miguel, San Marcos in 2005, that was hindering the movement of machinery of the Montana gold extraction company. The crackdown on protesting locals left one dead and 12 wounded.

Popular consultation groups that have been created since 2004 in the affected communities show an opposition rate of 95 percent,and the International Labour Group (ILO) recently condemned the mining activity for violating several human rights and environmental issues and urged the current government of Alvaro Colom to suspend the mining activites of Montana, Goldcorps and Cementos Progreso. On June 23rd 2010 the government suspended the activity of the Marlin mine in San Miguel Ixtahacán. However, since then there has been an increase of violence in the reason, with two armed attacks on protesters in the last two weeks. (Read more on the issue at

Since arriving in Coban I´ve met Honduran artesan Johnny, who`s chatted about economic and developmental issues facing Central America. One of his observations was that these countries are like children, with a lot of developing to do. We met one afternoon as the rain chased me out of the central park and under shelter ... I´d been drawing in the square and chatting to a little brother and sisiter, Maria and Maynor, giving them pencil and paper to draw with. Johnny´s an incredibly talented jeweller, creating some mentally trippy designs with real speed. He´s been showing me the basics of working with wire, and we´ve sat side by side working in the park, observing the life passing by. The best viewpoint is high up on the modernalienship like structure that blocks the view of the church (apparently it was supposed to be a sun clock, but was never finished) where you can look down across the whole square, at the shoeshiners, sweet vendors, and food stalls that change throughout the day. One evening I met Reynel up there, he came over to say hi to Johnny and got interested in my drawing, asking if I could draw his truck. As a thank you he bought us atol, the traditional hot corn drink I first tried with Francés in the Xela market.

My drawing has brought many other encounters. In Huehuetenango I met Carlos, a retired teacher, as I drew his friend Juan Mattias in the Central Park. A couple of young lads were also interested to see what I was up to and in turn drew me a couple of `momentos´in my sketchbook. In Sacapulús on the day of my birthday (ugh, now 27, a fully fledged elderly premegravader according to oldfashioned lore...teehee!) I was drawing the people sat under the Ceibas (the national tree) in the Central Park, when fairly quickly a crowd of young men gathered to watch. Friends Martir and José showed me a good look out spot at the river side later and asked me to do portraits of them, Martir also asked me to copy a photo of him and his Mum and cousin that was a bit rushed as the hostel I was staying in was closing, but he seemed chuffed with it and gave me a glittery turquoise bracelt as a birthday present!

Yesterday I headed by bus for a day trip to `las Grutas de Rey Marcos´, a river swept cave netweok that I had to don hard hat, torch and wellies for (and lose my trousers.. a good look!) The brief trip 35m into the caves was exhilarating, I was disappointed we couldn´t go further, but saw my first glimpse of stalagmites (up) and stalactites (down). On the way back to Coban in the bus changeover town of Chamelco I met another group of kids and adults as I sat drawing a couple of ladies in the market. One lad, Chalie, was curious to know if I do portraits so I gave it a go, but as he said, a different character appeared on the page... he didn´t seem too offended, although he also didn´t want to take the drawing away, telling me to keep it as a momentum... think that´s a polite way of saying its a bit of a rubbish drawing! Ach weel, got to keep practising.

I wandered up to the old white washed church, El Calvario today after some devastating family news from home, Ivan died suddenly last Saturday. It has been an unsettled day since receiving that news, I found some peace at the calm spot of the church but have been wandering in a daze the rest of the day. I think I will get back on the road tomorrow, for more random bellyheart warming encounters... like the orange vendor Santiago and his wife and daghter (or granddaughter?) both called Magdelena, who inticed me stop to try his chilli and salt laden fruit (a peculiar flavour, but satisfying after all the sweating on the hills) and was really enthusiastic about us `gringos´ telling me about a group of tall, only fruit eating gringos on bikes who`d passed by 3 or 4 months ago. He gave me my third orange as a gift, and limes and plums were thrust into my heands by the kids pouring out of the school he was stationed outside, who were asking me to veryfy answers they´d given in the English exam they had just sat. One of the older lads had a go with Peggy, but couldn´t get her moving (which I have to admit made me feel better about the slow speeds I´d been crawling uphill in) and I left a couple of my thread bracelets for the orangestall family, happy moments.

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