Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Goodwill Positioning System (GPS)

I glanced back over my shoulder to see where the whistle had come from. It had very quickly gotten dark with the thick cloud cover, and I already couldn't recognize faces or even make out how many people were over there, but I was sure I'd heard a whistle. I was trying to determine if it was meant for me, so I shut off the engine and yelled a "What?" back over my shoulder, before realizing they wouldn't understand and yelling in Spanish.

Silence in return. I turned the engine back on and looked at the rocks lit up by my headlights, planning my line through them when I heard the whistle again, followed by a yell. I killed the engine and looked down at the gauges, then glanced back over my shoulder. I wasn't sure, but it looked like they were all staring at me. Maybe 6 or 7? It seemed like just the last few minutes had taken us from dusk to flat-out darkness, and it was hard to see even forty feet.

I looked down at the gauges again. The temperature needle was straining to reach the red. I glanced back up at what, in a generous appraisal, might be called a gravel road. It had more in common with a dry riverbed, piled with loose fist-sized rocks. This was the first building I'd seen in... well, it felt like miles, but given how slow I'd had to go over the rocks, I couldn't really be certain how far it was. What was certain was that it was a long time.

I didn't fancy my chances at making it to the next town, whatever that might be.

I put the kickstand down and walked over to the little shack. Two boys leaning against posts outside, one leaning on the counter inside, and a man leaning on the wall just outside the window. A single candle, melted onto the wooden counter, was the only light. The eyes of a little girl popped up at the counter inside the shack, went wide in the light of the candle upon seeing me, and then disappeared again.

"How far is it to Semuc Champey?" I asked in Spanish.

"Uhhhh.... dos horas," was the reply from the man.

Two hours? I thought. This has to be a comedy sketch. I'd pulled on to this sorry excuse of a road just over an hour before, and not long after stopped to ask someone walking up the road how far it was to Semuc Champey. (The only other people I saw on the road were walking, no cars.) He'd told me one hour. Forty minutes later, after going past a couple turns, I verified that I was on the right path with another pedestrian, but he also told me it was an hour more. Maybe the road was bad enough that I was actually traveling backwards, because now, an hour into a supposedly hour-long ride, I had two hours left.

It's one of the downsides of navigating without a GPS, and just hoping people know where something is or how far away. I'd spent the entire day riding in pouring rain attempting to navigate with only a memory of the map I'd looked up on my computer that morning, and the goodwill of strangers who I'd ask directions from anytime I thought I might be headed the wrong way. It turns out not everyone knows where every city is in their country, and not everyone can accurately estimate how long it will take a motorcycle to get down a road. I was sorely missing my cell phone/GPS/map right now, and realizing how much I depend on it.

"You're sure it's two hours?" He confirmed: two hours, though I had to ask him to repeat himself a few times. Something about his Spanish was very difficult for me to understand, and it didn't help that my mind was pretty tired from the intense focus that this road demanded of me.

I debated my situation silently for a minute, looking back and forth between the bike and the road. No one else said a word, and the only sound was the chickens around the corner. Suddenly I recalled a friend's story about his radiator leaking after his front tire kicked a rock into it. Maybe that's why my engine temperature was so high.

I walked back to the bike and fished in the front pocket of my backpack for my light. As my hand came up empty, I vaguely remembered setting it off to the side of my backpack at the hostel in the morning, but had no memory of actually putting it in the pocket. I was stuck in the dark with no light. I headed back to the shack.

"Tienes un luz?" Do you have a light? I got only confused looks in response. I repeated myself a few times, trying slightly different emphasis or pronunciation each time. Finally the fourth one got through.

"Ah, luz! Si." I was worried he'd reach for the candle to bring it over, but he poked his head inside the window and pointed for the boy to grab something, and popped back out with a dim light, not much brighter than a keychain flashlight.

I walked back over to the bike and tried to see the radiator fluid level. I shook the bike back and forth as I shined the light on the little window. It looked empty. Not low, empty - I saw no liquid sloshing around inside of there. I shifted the light around and tried a different angle. Still nothing. The color of the light made it impossible to determine the color of the liquid on the bottom of my bike too. Was that mud sprayed up from my front wheel, or antifreeze leaking out of my radiator?

I stood there, soaking wet. A day of pouring rain, ending with this shitty road had me exhausted, and my decision making was shot. Two hours more of this road, in the dark, with a bike that might be busted - that much of the equation, at least, I could solve easily.

"Can I set up a tent here?" I asked in Spanish.

"Oh sure, sure, anywhere here." He gestured at the sloping field of mud and rocks next to the shack. Perfect. Nothing like setting up a tent in the rain on mud and rocks at night with no light.

"Or, if you want, you can use the hammock over there. That house is mine too. They're both mine." He gestured at the shack he'd been standing by before, and the second, smaller one off to the side, with a tin roof over the porch and a hammock hanging up.

"Are you sure?" He hadn't seemed very enthusiastic about it, but he was offering. I wasn't sure on the protocol here - in Mexico, I felt like I had a feel for what was okay and what wasn't, and I could tell when an offer came from a feeling of obligation and not because they actually wanted to offer it. I was new to Guatemala, and I hadn't quite figured out the rules.

"Si, si, no te pena."

I asked him his name. Pedro, he said (I needed to hear it two times, the strange accent again), and I gave him the standard "Nice to meet you" greeting and went to shake his hand, but got a stiff hand in return. Paired with a grin that seemed genuine, if a bit sly, I wasn't sure what to make of it.

I pulled my motorcycle around in front of the second shack and began to unstrap my things and place them under the tin roof. Almost immediately, I was surrounded by four children at what could be considered an uncomfortable distance as I set down my bags.

"Como estan?" I asked with a grin as I walked back to the bike for another bag. "Bien" came the chorus of replies, including one from Pedro as he walked away back towards the bigger shack. I continued to unload my things, and they continued to surround them and poke at them, looking on eagerly and helping me by holding the flashlight.

How old are you? I asked in Spanish. Fifteen, came the reply from the one who was clearly the leader of the group. I didn't get responses from the others until I individually asked, and the youngest, the only girl, required a prompting from the boys before she worked up the courage to tell me she was eight. She had a bit of the tomboyishness and a lot of the timidity that you'd expect from a girl with three older brothers.

The boys passed some words back and forth too fast for me to understand.

"Que dijiste?" What did you say?

The oldest just shook his head and grinned in reply.

I pulled out my GPS tracker to try to send a message. Of course I'd waited until I was in the middle of nowhere with no internet to be found before I'd decided to try sending a message on this thing, but I knew if I didn't try then people who were watching the map that it updated would probably be worried. I was stopped in the middle of nowhere, for no apparent reason, with no towns in sight. I knew that didn't look good.

Immediately, I was accosted by the four kids squeezing closer, all of them trying to see the screen. They were crowded so tightly together that I almost couldn't see the screen between their heads.

I (slowly - the interface is horrible on that thing) typed out a message saying I was safe and staying with a family for the night. For the hell of it, I translated the message for the kids into Spanish. After I did, I heard one of them ask a question (I could only tell it was a question from the tone) followed by a quick reply from the oldest kid.

I started to say something to him. "Hablas muy rapido -"

Suddenly I realized.

"Esta idioma no esta Espanol."  This language isn't Spanish.

"No," the grinning reply from the oldest.

"Que es?" What is it?

He made a sound that sounded comically close to a sneeze. After he repeated the sneezing sound a few times at my prompting, I asked him my usual question when I'm not quite understanding the pronunciation of a word. "Como se escribe?" How is it written?

Instead of answering, he pointed to one of the boys and said something in this other language. The boy ran off into the other house with the flashlight. I continued unpacking a bit in the light of my headlight, and as I dug through my clothes, I stumbled across my headlamp. I silently cursed the gods of luck for hiding it from me, and praised them that I still had it. I pulled it out and turned it on, producing a few quick exclamations from the three remaining. They immediately reached for it and started poking at it, putting their hand in front of the light and laughing.

Suddenly the boy who'd run away came back with a pen in hand and handed it to the oldest boy. He grabbed my hand and tried to write, but it was too damp and wrinkled from riding in the rain all day. I pulled up my sleeve and gave him my arm to write on, and he wrote out a word.


It even looks like a sneeze when you write it down. I asked them a few questions about where the language came from, but all I got was "No se" and a grin in response. I don't know.

After showing them how to turn on the different modes of my headlamp, I went back to getting out some dry clothes to put on, occasionally asking for them to stop shining the light in each others eyes and give me a little bit to dig something out.

After a while, Pedro gave a yell from the big shack and they gave me my headlamp back and went running through the drizzle back over there. The older boys had to pull the girl by the arm to make her leave.

I changed into some dry clothes (quite a process when getting out of the wet motorcycle gear), got my sleeping bag out and put it in the hammock, and settled in with my laptop to read a little bit. No internet, but I had a book downloaded that I could read.

It didn't take more than ten minutes before my lit-up face drew the attention of the kids again. All four of them came as a group, and crowded around me in the hammock. Once again, they were close enough that they were all leaning on me, one on each side with their head touching my head.

"Es un libro." It's a book. It's in English, I explained. They still stared at the screen as if looking at it hard enough would translate it for them. After a few pages of the book, the oldest one asked a question. "Video?"

I tried to explain in Spanish that I don't have videos on my computer unless I have internet... but I do have pictures. We ended up going through most of my collection of pictures from the trip with them occasionally making exclamations in Qeqchi or laughing about something like my sandals being on over my cast in San Ignacio.

Finally I told them I was going to read again, and went back to my book, thinking they'd take that as a cue to leave. They didn't right away, but they eventually got bored of staring at words they couldn't understand, and wandered off. After reading for a while I put the computer away (making sure to put my rain cover over the bag in case the tin roof leaked) and laid back to go to sleep.

I woke up in the middle of the night from a nightmare about broken radiators.

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