The last few days have been some of the most inspiring and most fulfilling days I have spent on my trip so far. Spending the night sleeping on the steps of the temple in the Gran Palaza in Tikal was a very special and unique experience followed by getting lost in the mountains of the Verapaces of Guatemala.
There is something so satisfying exploring places off the tourist trail and being surrounded for days on end by the most beautiful scenery. As I tired to convey in the piece I wrote the Joy of Movement, these are the days I live for on this trip. The days when you are out there on your own; you, your bike, the road and all the challenges and surprises associated with taking the road less travelled. This is what offsets the monotony that can set in when simply town or city hoping. The follow is an account of the last few days.
After my over night in Tikal I packed my gear up and hit the road. I made a quick stop at the hostel to pick up the book I found at a camp site The Lord of the Flies. Which I “studied” in school and now am reading for the first time.
I headed out the road road towards Sayaxché the next big town. I had planned to go towards Lanquin, where there was a river deep in the jungle with cascading water falls and pools. The normal route to take to Lanquin is the main road towards Cobán. The road initially leads to the south west and then you double back eastwards towards Lanquin. I opted for the more direct route across the mountains. This road took me high in to los altos of the Verapaces in Guatemala.
The road wound and twisted and doubled back on itself forever climbing. El burro coped well but was getting very hot, but I had no option but to push on.
This was real adventurous stuff. I was out there on my own, no cars or vans dared this road. At least i didn’t meet any. I only met locals on motorcycles, though bigger than mine and with lovely telescopic front suspension with several inches of travel.
I passed planes that were flat as a playing field but for the massive rock formations sittng on them an odd sight.
The land was the lushest I have seen anywhere. It is the rainy season here and everything seems to be taking full advantage the afternoon down pours.
I rode through lush palm forests and skirted along the sides of mountains. The road was treacherous to say the least and had broken away in several places.
Hill climbs were especially difficult made worse by the heavily broken rock road and having so much weight over the front wheel which served to add weight and worse still momentum into the steering and made it difficult to control as the wheel bounded against rock and stones. I removed my food bag from the front basket and placed it between my legs to take the weight off the front. That made a huge difference as expected.
I had left Tikal arond 9 am and now the sun hung low in the sky and would set around 6.30. I pressed on hoping to make some more progress not wanting the day to end, but the light was fading.
I drove on. Dark clouds had been gathering and there were flashes of lightening off in the distance. The rains were on their way.
I passed through a small hamlet in the mountains and enquired as to how far Lanquin was. The answer came. Another hour. I was slighly dismayed but I didn’t even want to stay in the Lanquin anyway I wanted to camp but I was autopilot and that was my destination. In fact I never set out to reach Lanquin as I was told it was 300km away but as the day went on the unreachable target became an attainable goal.
As I rode in to the little hamlet I had noticed up on the slope to my left hand side a small leento type shelter that was covering 2 water tanks. The shelter having been built much larger than the tanks meant there was a nice place to pitch up underneath.
I sussed out the locals to see whether they were a friendly bunch. Feeling satisfied I asked whether I could camp up there. Of course they said. By now a large crowd had gathered around he gringo with the comedy style overlanding motorcycle.
I parked my bike up and started setting up my tent, little kids trickling up all he time to have a look at this strange new arrival in their little village. I had plenty of willing little “helpers” and I had my tent up in twice the time it normally takes to set up. Nevertheless I was glad to have the always cheery children around to joke about with. There were also a few adults about too who kept a respectful distance but were equally as interested. I chatted casually to one who was the teacher in the local school he was friendly and had a cute little daughter called Shirley about 3 years old who kept coming over and grabbing or slapping me the running away giggling.
After I had my sleeping arrangement made up I stopped, paused and sat down. All eyes still on me silence decended and was broken only by some giggles of the children when it was decided that there had been far too much of this boring silence.
Feeling the pressure to entertain or at least do something to break this slightly uncomfortable situation with nobody taking the hint to take their children away and give me some space. I started to assemble my stove and prepare to cook. Hmm everyone is still here. I sent a niño off to buy me a candle, no change was forthcoming, it couldn’t have been much. By now we were all crowded around a candle lit gringo kitchen with all his fancy schmancy equipment. I sat there for a while not lighting up the stove trying to send the message that the show was over. But all eyes were watching and all the while giggling. Well I suppose I better light it up then i thought to myself. I lit it up and joked about a bit and started cooking my food that I actually didn’t really want to eat in the first place.
I apologised to them jokingly that I wasn’t Jesus Christ and didnt have any loaves or fishes for all of them.
As soon as my food was ready I started to serve it and on cue the people just left. It seems watching someone eat is universally not the done thing. I bade them good night and was happy to have the camp to myself to chill out.
The night brought with it heavy rains and I was glad of my shelter and my decision to call it a day. I was a happy camper.
The next day I got up around 6.30 am and soon had some people sitting on the ditch looking at me. Presently some of my little friends showed up and once again “helped” me pack my gear.
I saw a lady put bananas and a coffee cup on her wall as if giving the signal she was open for business. I took up that signal. Not that I was hungry I had already eaten and made coffee. I just wanted to spend a bit of money in the village. When I enquired whether she was selling bananas she said yes. “ok i’ll have 3 please”.
” Is that all” she replied. (in espanol of course)
I asked how much and she said,
“Nada, es un reaglo”. Its a gift.
To me this was a very heartfelt gesture. These people are what we would regard as poor. (The measure of which seems to be the aquisition of things more than a quality of life). On the tourist trail I was fed up meeting people who tried to be nice but at he last minute would demand money from you. It was nice to receive a gift without strings attached. I asked can I buy a coffee she said yes, and went off to make me a coffee. Damn I didn’t really want one i just thought you were selling some I said to myself. She gave me a coffee and accepted nothing in return, just a hand on the heart thank you from a road beaten traveller.
I bade farewell to the kids and received a shouted “Adios”from the Teacher across the hill.
I hit the road again. But stopped briefly to remove a giant spider that had crawled on to my handle bars.
That day saw me driving through the beautiful mountain scenery again all the time struggling up and down hill and enjoying the vista as I rounded each corner.
I was totally buzzing from my experience. Its hard to describe the energy and the excitment that overland motorcycling brings, and for me, being out there on my own doing it. I thought about backpackers, about all the stuff they miss out on in between the tourist spots they can visit and the constant meeting of other backpackers and the same stories and the same routes. The over night buses. Missing out on the beautiful scenery.
Travelling by motorcycle gives you enormous freedom to explore, to go to places that nobody else goes to and to interact with local people in a way that most travellers never get to.
I certainly feel very privileged to be able to experience this.
But aside from that there certainly is truth in the old saying regarding travelling and vehicles.
“Travelling by car is like watching a movie, travelling by motorcycle is like being in one”.
To be continued…