We entered Guatemala after a minor border-crossing snafu. Second border, second snafu. Rather than a few floundering moments in a pedestrian carousel, we ate our pedal strokes when the man with the really big weapon told us to turn around and obtain stamps from a building five kilometers back down the sustained, muggy hill we'd just climbed. Back down to the "unmarked building on the right" where we'd supposedly be granted official permission to leave the country. And then, back up, up, up. Aside from emptying our tanks and setting us back enough to necessitate riding a busy stretch of the Pan-American Highway in the dark, it really wasn't a big deal. Not a big deal in comparison to the nightmarish tales of those Central Americans attempting the journey north to face our border. (Interjected bouts of perspective are important when something trivial seems unjust, or simply a pain in the ass.) Many people leave family behind and sacrifice their lives to try and reach the States, and here we are, riding the other direction, at will. A point of confusion, yet fascination with many here.
We were glued to the Pan-American highway for our first three days in Guatemala. Three long days. Fighting for space on the road we vowed to avoid. Unfortunately, due to our point of entry, it was the only sensical route to Xela given our impending school start date. My naive plan to "just take side roads" felt hilariously misled after being immediately funneled into a slot canyon-like road. Towering walls of green on either side. All sides in fact. Pretty wild that there is vehicle passage at all through such terrain. At times the road was manageable, and other times, simply unbearable. It is my duty to mention a particular incriminating incident in order to reinforce to those living vicariously through our travels that we're not just on a big vacation. Vacation evokes something much different in my mind. Something much different than my Pan-American meltdown where, in a state of near convulsion, I shrieked, "I CAN'T FUCKING DO THIS ANYMORE." The never-ending parade of semis and buses forcing me off the road and into an inhospitable-rocky-cliffy-side-of-the-road-situation had finally worn me so thin, I snapped. With adrenaline pumping and every intention of launching my bike as far away as possible for dramatic effect, I was faced with the reality of how goddamn heavy a fully loaded bicycle is. Rather than my daydreamnt version soaring effortlessly through the air, what resulted was an underwhelming, slow-motion tiiiiimber into the bushes directly at my feet. Upset at how ineffective my display of disapproval had been, I dragged my bike out of the tangly bushes and attempted a second heave. What's the famous quote out there defining insanity as doing the same thing twice and expecting different results? Anyways, I felt insane alright. Beside myself, I barely recognized the inconsolable bike-chucker unable to pull it together. Shaking and gasping for breaths, like a sobbing toddler, I had had enough. Officially crossing the line of "a little bit miserable" into something far more serious. Undoubtedly a trip low. Aidan remained calm and did a great job masking how freaked out he was. She. Is. Losing. It. And I was. At that moment, an end goal a year down the road felt unattainable. The thing about a bike trip though, especially one through countless foreign countries, is that there is no easy way out. If I could have snapped my fingers at that moment and teleported back to Portland, surrounded by an decadent supply of tap water, I admittedly might have. Thank goodness an out is not that easy as those desperate moments pass. Twenty minutes later, cuddling a tortilla/peanut butter concoction, sitting in the dirt, talked down off the bike-throwing ledge, all was well again. It only took Aidan a few minutes to ask jokingly, "Hey remember that time you threw your bike? TWICE." Too soon.
Since the somewhat turbulent introduction to Central America, we've been laying low, keeping things stationary. Our longest (physical) break of the trip. For the past three weeks we've been studying at one of Xela's intensive language schools. The brain pain from three weeks of one-on-one Spanish instruction is real. And although eager to take our new conversational chops and unreasonable amount of flashcards further down the road, we feel strongly that our time stood still was worthwhile.
With an emphasis on Guatemalan history and politics, the school (PLQ) prides itself on much more than grammatical lesson plans. From humble beginnings in a single room of an unmarked house, the school's clandestine early years are fascinating. Relying solely on word of mouth, the school operated as a genuine speakeasy, doing such to avoid repercussions for the "controversial" curriculum being taught behind closed doors. Guatemala was still very much a country at war and such precautions were necessary. The school possesses an admirable sense of responsibility to educate foreigners on issues far more pressing than guide book phrases and frivolous vocabulary. As a result of their impassioned position, we felt inclined to give the school our full attention. Our time studying was an important nod to the impossibility of immersion without first learning the history and why things exist the way they do in places. On day one, my firecracker feminist teacher skipped any sort of introductory conversation with me regarding my favorite color or donde esta this or that and instead, opted for a tirade/lecture dissecting the failings of machismo culture and the importance of the budding, yet drastically under-funded arts community in Guatemala. I left my first day of school with a refreshingly relevant vocab list and poetry homework. And in between rants, we covered verb conjugations.
Although Aidan and I did other stuff (evident by the volcano photos and injuries sustained during soccer games), most of our spare time was spent surrounded by scholastic materials, trying to connect the dots. Confusing conversations with our host grandmother acted as effective, albeit frustrating practice as she talked really fast, often with food in her mouth or a hand in front of her face. Most of the time we just nodded and utilized the go-to gringo response, "Siiiiiiii." In the end, the language barrier was a blessing as she'd slowly reveal convictions in stark contrast to our own. If she found out that there we were actually unmarried atheists...well I just don't know. After a few weeks time together, the one topic we saw eye to eye on was the quality of the donuts from the local Mennonite bakery. "Ri-ci-ci-cisimo," she'd say knocking her head back for accentuation while thwapping/snapping her forefinger for additional emphasis, all while her eyes squeezed closed. It's like in that moment she actually understood us. Unfortunately, in the end, discrimination and pro-Trump'ers exist everywhere and this sweet-toothed grandmother was no exception.
What a strange yet oddly convenient time to be away from the States. Minimal election coverage. No TV, internet, radio, nada in our homestay. Only juicy bits in between classes on the school's wifi. "The morning after" (appropriately shameful connotation), we got up early for a walk up a nearby hill, a walk meant to offset the eight or so hours of sitting a day that had become the new norm. Our lives are so out of context anymore that I'd actually forgotten about the serious news nugget awaiting us once reconnected. We joined exercise forces with a Canadian-born woman who has spent the last twelve years in London working in human rights. A sharp, informed woman who, unfortunately for us that morning, is a seriously credible source. We eased into the walk with "chilly morning" small talk before her face drew very serious and apologized for the choices the United States had made. "You must be mourning," she said. Wait, what. After asking at least three times if it was a sick, pre-coffee joke, she confirmed right there in the streets of Xela that Donald Trump had won the election. I broke into tears, which is an obvious response, but just uncharacteristic enough to catch everyone off guard. We continued on our walk, at times silently staring at the ground moving underneath our feet, and other times talking through the impossibilities of him as a human being and collectively dumbfounded at the number of closet Trump voters. I could go on about my crushing disappointment or the indescribably suffocating feeling of it all, but political rants (sans action) are not effective vehicles for change. Although it feels responsible to mention the elephant in the room, it's arguably irresponsible to complain from afar, on "vacation."
So, with a graceful change of subject, once again, our time has come to get moving. Plans from here (Xela) are loose at best. Our next established visit will be with Dory in Panama, where she's signed a 3-month lease in a quaint mountain town. What a wild woman. She'll no doubt be inviting the neighborhood stray cats in for cans of tuna in no time. See you soonish Mom!