It's Christmas and we're paused here in Granada, Nicaragua. It's a comfortable place to rest and we managed to stumble into the beautiful, though not-quite-finished, Hostel Azul, complete with a charming family and half-price construction rates. Rippin' wifi, too.
Personally, I like the pauses. I've been thinking through an analogy on how I feel about trip progress on an given day and basically it comes down to Newton's first law -- the one that goes: an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force and an object in motion remains in motion etc etc. Also known as inertia. It's dead on accurate. I am the object. If we're stopped, I am as happy as anything to stay stopped. If we're going, I want to keep going: thirst, hunger, and rationale be damned. It's just the transition from one to the other that's especially difficult.
It's important to note these are my feelings and not necessarily "ours" but if you think (for the sake of this analogy) I'm about to call Tara an unbalanced force, you're insane. The voice of reason, maybe. Definitely the necessary motivator and, only sometimes, a forceful one.
This is how we barely left Xela. Heels dragging and excuses flying after three weeks of comfortable life studying Spanish at PLQ. Both of us would have been happy to stay and keep studying. Our progress learning, though significant, left us only more aware of how much we wanted/needed to learn. But compared to our daily trip budget, the cost of school was astronomical and at some point we would need to keep going. Reason prevailed.
The return to the road was humbling. Physically, sure, as we climbed out of the rim of volcanoes that encircle Xela, wheezing our way through 3 weeks of rust but, also, as if on cue, our newly acquired Spanish skills were put in their place by our first ever roadside translator request.
We saw him walking at the beginning of the hill, a long haired bearded white guy with a backpack and a guitar who hardly seemed surprised to see us but waved back all the same. Later, some twenty miles down the road he was sitting in the passenger seat of a taxi cab staring at us with similar indifference. The driver, a friendly Guatemalan man, ask desperately if we spoke Spanish and could translate between him and his new passenger.
I mean, let's do this. The driver said he'd picked up his passenger shortly after we'd seen him walking. They had eaten some food and he was now driving back to where he lived in Guatemala City. He wanted to know if we could help him figure out where to take our fellow gringo.
"Where are you headed?" we asked.
"Brasil" he said, either ignoring the fact that we meant today, or unaware that his driver was asking where to drop him off.
"Oh, wow, that's far"
"Missionary" he added.
At this point I did my first real double take since they'd pulled over and realized that this guy had been walking, since Washington apparently, and had the kind of sunblasted tan that defies shadow and hairline and is usually reserved for poolside geriatrics armed with aluminum foil. He was cooked. What had first read as indifference now seemed more glazed transcendence, equal parts Lord Savior and LSD. It also occurred to me that the two of them had already been in the car for some half and hour and made ZERO progress.
"Quiere ir a Brasilia!" ~ He wants to go to Brasil!
From what we understood, the driver --more apologetically than we thought necessary-- explained to us that he wasn't going that far, but would happily take the guy to the office of immigration in Guatemala City where he could stay for a day or two and shower. And possibly shave, Tara added.
We did our best to convey this in English. At this point, the passenger had grown tired of turning his head back and forth, opting instead for the middle ground, staring straight ahead, in a contented half grin, waiting for the car to start moving again...towards Brazil.
Eventually it did. We said our goodbyes and as the cab pulled off we took stock of what we'd said, meant to say and maybe just exactly what happened. We wished we remembered to say to the driver that he was exceptionally kind for offering a ride, we made a note not to claim interpreter status again for a little while, and we acknowledged that this may have been a particularly challenging interaction. We also wished that I'd remembered to hand off the longsince un-used "Spanish Phrase Book" as we watched the two of them disappear down the road, each facing forward and 3 more hours of silence before reaching the Capital.
Getting back to riding shape happened more quickly than we imagined. We learned in Mexico, that Cortez, as an exasperated conquistador, had once described the country's landscape by crumpling up a piece of paper and tossing it on the table. If that's true, then Guatemala is finely folded origami. The topography is absurd. There are no laws regarding acceptable percent road grade. Roads seem to go straight up and then straight back down, with no regard for switchbacks or safety. As a fan of the downhill, I was crushed to learn that there's no such thing as coasting downhill in Guatemala. For all the struggle on the legs to make it up, the forearms take the pain on the way down, squeezing the brakes with full force - like trying to cut a 2X4 with a pair of garden sheers. Neither one of us ever totally lost control but I did spend time thinking about the slowing power of a road shoulder's worth of coffee plants.
Of course, the other reason for the challenging terrain is that the good stuff: lakes, views and our chosen roads traverse a line of volcanoes that stretches the length of the country. After descending and then ascending out of the caldera that is Lake Atitlan, we set our sights on another volcano hike which, according to Instagram, can produce epic nighttime lava explosions. Lava, especially frikkin flying out of a mountain, seems so otherworldly that I've officially added it to my trip list of must-sees. We didn't end up seeing it from Acatenango, as the mountain was uncharacteristically quiet while we were nearby, but we were treated to a seriously spectacular hike and mountaintop view, as pictured in the previous post.
The town of Acatenango itself is a small village at the bottom of multiple volcanos. The kind of place that, looking back on it from above, that looks like the bottom of a funnel. There are two roads, one in and then out again, but as we'd learn, Acatenango is most definitely at the bottom. Most of the guided volcano tours leave out of Antigua (an hour away by car), camp and then summit at dawn. Not wanting anything to do with a guided group tour, we opted to track down the "only gringo in the valley" and see if we could make a go of the volcano ourselves.
Ronnie, or Ron-dog, or Gringo Loco, or a few other self-appointed nicknames I can't quite remember, lives in an old colonial building that functions as the only quasi- hotel/ accommodations in Acatenango. I'll spare you any euphemisms, Ronnie is a trip. Like many expats we've met, he is happy to have an English speaking audience. His stories swung from sporting triumphs, he was Cal Berkeley's 5th highest scoring point guard ever; to dating triumphs, numerous; to previous employment, he converted the Rockefeller Farm to a thoroughbred horse ranch; to leaving Catholicism for explorations in cosmovision. He also listened, which has not been characteristic of many other expats we've met.
What we appreciated most, was that Ronnie was simply thrilled to have us visit. So thrilled, in fact, that he offered to shuttle us to the base of the volcano at 4 am so we could make the summit before the peak clouded over later in the day. Simple enough. We expected to finish a couple hours later and head back down to rest at the hotel. As he dropped us off, in the dark, on the side of the road, he gave us his phone number in case anything should happen. He also gave us both a sustained hug which was a nice send off, but, to the degree it felt like he was saying goodbye to us forever, unnerving.
We had read all kinds of things about the hike. Most of the information came from guided tours, or sites angling you toward guided tours. Estimates ranged from 6-7 hours to the summit with a backpack, or 4-5 without. In retrospect, I think we saw this as a challenge -- me with my not wanting to stop for any reason and Tara with her general love of going up hill.
The only light for the first hour of the hike was from the crappy batteries in our headlamps. A few of the online reports had mentioned there used to be robberies on the mountain which, paired with darkness, had us working real hard to just get further, faster. It's an odd thing to very in-shape for one activity but not necessarily another. Biking legs, sure, but hiking was pulling on different muscles and although we ended up being capable of all but racing our way to the top in a hilarious 3 hours, it was already obvious that serious soreness was in store. We spent an hour alone on the summit, heads buzzing from the altitude, gawking at the adjacent Volcán Fuego as it smoldered. It's my experience that about the time I start trying to will a natural wonder to DO something, it's usually a sign it's a good time to move on. We made it down in half the time it took us to get up, passing the 70 odd backpackers we'd somehow missed the rest of the morning.
We had a few beautiful transportation mix-ups in Acatenango as well. Having finished the hike 3 hours before we expected, the chicken bus back to town wasn't coming for at least that long. We decided to start walking back with hopes of catching a ride. After a fair bit of arm waving, we managed to wrangle a ride in one of the many vans that assures oncoming traffic, in a massive sticker across the windshield, that Jehovah is helping guide the vehicle. Unfortunately, we flubbed handle on the side sliding door enough that it couldn't be opened and the driver had to come around to open the trunk so we could clamber in over the backseat. Once settled, one of the girls in the van tried the side door again and opened it with ease. The vans' laughter (7 young women and the driver) hit a pitch that suggested the door may have been able to open all along. When we finally got rolling they played Maile Cyrus' "Came in like a wrecking ball" so loud it felt like they were rubbing it in.
We'd reversed the hitchhiking trip the next day. With our legs embarrassingly cooked from the hike, we caught a ride back up to the foot of the volcano, some 5,000 feet of gain, where it met up with the route again. This time, though, we went to the plaza and solicited the help of the town's flatbed garbage truck already headed in that direction. Standing against the guard rails with bikes fully loaded, we wound our way up through the valley much to the enjoyment of the farmers and their families looking on from the villages and the fields. We just smiled and waved. 2 gringos in the trash truck on what I imagined might look to be one of the world's saddest parade floats.
Though close, we weren't quite done with Guatemala, and Guatemala wasn't quite done with us. There's been an ongoing joke about the entire trip being downhill - what with us going South and the shape of the globe and all. Leaving the mountains of Guatemala finally felt like the map looks. For the better part of 3 hours we sped down toward the flatlands and El Salvador. We stopped for one last night in the town of Chiquimulilla before crossing the border. Guatemala's parting gift was a pair of seriously saucy chicken tamales. In a line we'd recite a number of times since, Tara commented that, "These taste an awful lot like SpaghettiOs."
It hit Tara first. We were standing in line at the El Salvador border, and it was 90 odd degrees and humidity a million. The vanfull of backpackers had managed to get in line before us and were having troubles with their passports. To further slow our progress, we had to each take turns waiting while the other sat with the bikes. Sometime after getting her passport stamp confirming she'd exited Guatemala, but before we actually gathered our things and crossed the bridge to El Salvador, Tara turned green. I recognized the look and we found a cozy spot to sit among the bread vendors, shoe shiners and money exchangers. It was too hot to actually relax, and given our current passport status we were in the border no man's land that requires forward progress. Uh oh, SpaghettiOs.
A border barfing would have made an incredible story, but after a few crackers and some serious deep breathing, Tara rallied and we pedalled over the bridge, officially crossing into El Salvador. We handed over our passports and chatted with the border agents standing on the sidewalk which apparently was all that's necessary to enter the country. Maybe it was the crackers, but after the most serious official of the El Salvodorean agents complimented Tara's Spanish she was suddenly revived and ready to ride. We skipped the accommodations close to the border and decided to find somewhere further on down the road. A decision that proved to be an interesting way to learn the differences in the two countries.
It's not fair to say that travelers aren't accepted in El Salvador, maybe more that they aren't expected. There really just isn't infrastructure in place, especially out where we were near the border. The road was flat with a wide shoulder and I was happy as ever to keep rolling. What resulted was a 60+ mile day, 40 of which happened post-color-turn sickness onset. We would add miles each time we arrived at a town without services or accommodations. I know she's mentioned a couple low moments on here before (see bike throwing incident) but Tara is seriously fuerte. I'd only realize just how fuerte a day or so later when the tamale plague came down on me in full force.
By the time I was ta-mauled, we'd made it another day down the road and found a comfortable spot with surf out front to lay low and sort out our digestive issues. The surf, famous in El Salvador, turned out to be a serious tease. Lured out by an all-but-empty point break I'd try and surf for as long as I could before giving into my stomach, which, lying flat on a surfboard, felt like a pot of soup on a ship deck. I'd repeat this cycle a couple of times before I realized it wasn't really all that fair to use the moments I felt halfway decent to go sit in the ocean only to incapacitate myself for another couple of hours of lying around. Did get a couple good waves, though.
Redemption came in El Tunco a couple miles down the road. We finally both felt better and had managed to eat a real meal. A free one, too, as I ended up being the successful hand in jimmying the lock of a unlucky man's Nissan. He bought us breakfast as a thank-you along with a third round of beers for him and his girlfriend. It was 9 in the morning. We had an uneasy moment thinking about getting him BACK into his car, but we saw them a little later and it was obvious they weren't going anywhere: walking, driving or otherwise. We picked up some not-so-bargain rentals from one of the hotels and spent close to 4 hours surfing the point at Sunzal determined to get our money's worth. The wind was up a bit which kept the place essentially empty if only slightly bumpy. The benefit of a point is that it's possible to pick off both larger and smaller waves, satisfying each of our criteria for fun. Tara also learned some hard lessons about finding just the right spot to sit, but again, fuerte.
Fearing the weekend, we left El Tunco with plans to find the coast again in Eastern/Southern El Salvador. That Friday was my 32nd birthday. Which, maybe last year, I might not have imagined I'd be sitting facing the opposite way on a toilet in a dirty motel room, in the middle of El Salvador, having my girlfriend cut my hair because the afro was causing helmet difficulties. But hey, birthdays are supposed to be memorable.
Between the heat and running out of recommended destinations we decided to put our heads down aim for the next country. We would have been happy to ride through the slice of Honduras that divides El Salvador and Nicaragua, we had planned to, but once we realized we could trade 2 days of riding on the too slim shoulder of the PanAmerican highway for a breezy ocean crossing, we were convinced to catch a boat in La Union. That, and the fact that once we'd stopped in La Union, I didn't want to get going again.
Our decision meant we spend 3 days re-learning the Latin American definition of "soon" and I'd exhaust my ability to happily remain in one spot -- credit to the .60 ¢ rice flour pupusas for the increased staying power. We did make it eventually. The final day we spent 10 hours sitting against the wall of the port immigration building. Our boat, originally promised for 10:30 am then 2 pm wouldn't actually arrive until long after sundown. Fortunately for us, the same relaxed approach to timelines carries to crossing open bodies of water in the dark, without any lights our navigational equipment and we were able to get to Nicaragua solely by the light of partly clouded super moon.
Nicaragua has been incredible. It's wild how much changes with each border crossed, and now in our fifth country, it feels like we really are getting into the varied experience that biking across a continent or two promised. I'll leave our days in Nicaragua so far for another time, just know it's already involved a couple overly long days and more than a few requests from me to stay where we are. Maybe we'll stay in Granada another day. It's so nice here.