Thursday, December 10, 2015

Gringos at Greengos

I woke up with the sun. Well, really, I woke up with the roosters a few hours before the sun, and then drifted in and out of half sleep as they continued making noise until the sun started to come up. As I came out of the semi-haze of a night filled with dreams, my brain began to separate which parts of the past twenty-four hours were dreams and which actually happened.

No, my friend hadn't flown all the way down to Guatemala because they thought I'd died. Yes, I was sleeping in some random family's hammock on the side of the road. No, I hadn't been stuck in rural Guatemala for a year and taken up farming. Yes, I might have a busted radiator that would prevent me from riding anywhere and require me to hitch a ride somewhere for parts.

Okay. I can handle this.

I got out of the hammock and started to get my things together, after shooing the two wet dogs off of where they'd been sleeping on top of my motorcycle gear. I gave my pants a quick smell, and sure enough they smelled like wet dog.

After getting my pants and boots on, I packed up my bag, procrastinating the moment of truth. Was my radiator actually broken? After I finally got everything packed up, I leaned down and checked the fill line on the radiator and rocked the bike.

Full. I saw fluid sloshing around just below the fill line, just like it should be. Phew. That was a relief. Apparently the light was just the right color the night before to completely match the antifreeze so I couldn't see it in the tank.

Within 15 minutes I had the bike fully packed up, and I left as much money as I would have spent on a hotel with the one kid who was hanging around this early in the morning, with instructions to give it to his dad.

Before taking off, I had to steel myself. I can do this, I reminded myself. I'd made it this far up this road, I can make it another... well, hopefully only two hours, if Pedro was better at assessing distances than the two people before him. And then back to the rocks I went.

I don't have much offroad experience on a motorcycle, and even if I did, a KLR isn't the best bike to learn offroad on. Even if it was better for it, a loaded down KLR isn't good for it. Even if I was learning it on a loaded KLR, there are much, much better roads for learning it on.

So to say the next few hours were unpleasant for me would be an understatement. Barely catching the bike after a muddy patch threw my back wheel sideways (and hoping that my ankle could handle catching the bike), keeping my shoulders and arms tense to keep the handlebars straight when they'd hit a loose rock, keeping the bike in first gear and even then often having to use the clutch because of how slow I had to go to not bottom out on some of the rocks... It was a trial by fire of my offroad skills.

But slowly the road got better. I went through a small town and it turned into smaller rocks and more solid dirt, and then through another and by then it was pretty much a normal (though still a bit loose) gravel road, albeit one that had been rained on the night before. After I went through Fray Bartolome de las Casas, it was actually under construction and looked like it could be paved soon. And then... and then I saw pavement in the distance. Finally! After an hour the night before and two hours this morning, I'd finished that horrible road and gotten to a real road again.

But... there was another road off to the side, unpaved, that clung to the side of the mountain and dove into the valley. I had a sneaking suspicion, so I asked someone at the corner there which way to Semuc Champey. Sure enough, she pointed down the hill at the gravel road.


So down I went. And while the road was better than the worst parts of the road before, it wasn't a cakewalk. Still a lot of time in first gear, still a lot of slick rocks and mud, and still some tense riding. I got through Lanquin, the town right before Semuc Champey, and after its brief respite of cobblestone streets the road quickly devolved back to the level I'd been at that morning and the night before, though at least now people had a better idea of how far the end was when I asked for directions. At this point I was passing hostels that I'd been looking up on the map, so I started asking people where Greengo's was, and they actually knew the place and could point me the right way.

I continued up past all of the hostels that I'd looked at, past the entrance to the cave tour I'd heard about and across a bridge, and past the entrance to the hike to the pools I'd heard about. At this point I was kind of wishing I'd just stayed back in one of the hostels near Lanquin, because the very end of the road was one of the worst parts. I finally got to an entrance to Greengo's... which was a super steep set of car-width ramps (close to 45 degrees at one point) with a stairway down the middle. I opted to not take my bike down that right now, and walked down to talk to people at the hostel.

I walked down the steps and then along the wooden pathway next to a little stream, and was greeted to a spectacular little collection of colorful buildings, trails lined with colorfully painted boards and pictures made from rocks set into the concrete, and a general feel of a relaxed paradise.

Photo stolen from Belgian friends.
Since I'd gotten up so early, it was only a little after 9:30 when I arrived, but I was pretty tired out. As it turns out, the Belgians had partied pretty hard the night before and were just starting to get up - well, two of them, the third was still sleeping. Delphine asked me how the ride was, but I didn't have to answer - my face said it well enough. But it wasn't quite over yet, because I still had to get the bike down the steps so we could put it inside the gate at the bottom.

That ended up being quite the adventure. The guy at the desk offered to help - he looked like the kind of guy who had never grown out of the gangly arms of legs of puberty, but had at least gotten comfortable with them. With him and a local Guatemalan who clearly worked out regularly holding on to the bike, and me straddling the bike, we started down the stairs.

I sat on the front brakes hard while the two of them stayed behind the bike basically pulling on the luggage rack and bracing against the steps/ramp to stop it from going down too fast. I'd let off the front brakes a tiny bit, and the bike would start skidding down the steps, even if I re-applied the brake. After 3 or 4 steps, the combined effort of me hitting the brakes as hard as possible and the two of them trying to pull the bike back would cause it to come to a stop, and then we'd do it again. Finally I got down to the less-steep part and was able to ride the bike inside the gate and down the path a bit, where we "parked" it by stopping next to a tree, and then just picking up each end of the bike and setting it down close to the tree where it wouldn't fall over.

I settled in and took my ritualistic post-ride shower, which felt especially good since I hadn't gotten to do one the night before after a day of wet riding. By that time, the Belgians were up and planning their day. I was plenty exhausted, but after a cup of coffee and some breakfast decided to join them for a hike to the Semuc Champey pools.

We took off down the road on foot with a few others from the hostel, but sans Mylène who had aggravated a previous injury in her foot since I'd seen her last. It was just a short walk down the road to the entrance, where we were accosted by children trying to sell us chocolate, and yelled at by women trying to sell us chicken. Some of them had even learned some English, and "Rose" kept telling us her name and made sure that we knew she had chocolate if we wanted some when we came back out.

We were saved paying the entrance fee at the gate by the fact that it had rained the night before, which meant the pools weren't there usual clear blue but were instead a muddy brown. Our guide - all of 17 years old but had been a guide there for 3 years already - showed us a map of the hike and asked us if we wanted to see the Mirador - the high viewpoint which required a harder hike but gave a good view. Well of course we did, muddy pools or not, so we hiked up some super steep, slick stairs (occasionally getting a warning from our guide about how slippery it was) to the Mirador.

I was once again thankful that I'd done my Spanish lessons early in the trip, because the guide spoke very little English but had a lot of really cool information to give us, most of which I was able to translate into English for the others. I hadn't done much research on the pools (given my lack of internet in the hammock the night before), so I was stunned to find out from him that there's actually a muddy underground river that dives down under the pools, which are fed by springs. Over time, the minerals in the water flowing from the springs calcified and formed a bridge over the river, and the river kept flowing continuously underneath the slowly forming mineral structure that was now catching all the water from the springs.

(Here's where I'd put pictures, if I wasn't still stuck with a dead phone at this point in the trip. Seriously though, google them.)

We then hiked down some super steep stairs, and at this point we'd picked up an additional hiker: a dog that started following us down the trail. He'd sometimes stick to the trail and the wooden stairs, and other times dart off the trail to the rocks and get up or down that way, but never strayed far from us. One time he made a mistake and started going down a super steep, super slick stairway, and started slipping. He caught himself, but couldn't turn around and didn't want to go further down, so I picked him up and very carefully walked him down the steps and set him back down.

We made our way down to the pools where our guide locked up a few belongings in a locker, and then we waded out into the water. It was actually bluer than we'd expected, given the free entry, but apparently not nearly as clear as it often is. Here's where the guide was really helpful, as he showed us which parts of the rocks we could slide down, where we could jump off into the deeper parts, and where to watch our knees for rocks as we swam across the pools. He even went up a cliff marked "No saltar" (no jumping) and jumped off, but wouldn't let us do the same. I thought about doing it anyway, but he was cool enough I didn't want to get him in trouble.

After swimming almost down to the end of the pools, we peered over the edge where you could see the underground river re-emerge in a rage, mixing with the gentle waterfall of the pools. Then we waded our way back upstream to our locker, and made the trek back. On our exit from the park, we discovered that the water had cleared up enough that they were now charging, so we'd gotten lucky and just barely missed paying! But we weren't quite as lucky with the chicken we bought from the vendor outside, which ended up being raw on the inside. Only cost a few dollars, but was still kind of annoying that they were begging us to buy their food and then sold us uncooked food.

The rest of that evening was pretty relaxed - between the evening of drinking for the Belgians, and the night (and morning) of riding I'd had, we all needed a bit of a break. And the hostel was perfect for that - there wasn't anything else nearby, but the restaurant had good food, there was a low table with futon mattresses strewn around it that was perfect for hanging out, a pool table off to one side, and a big TV that was perfect for the gigantic movie collection they had behind the desk.

I sat and wrote down my night in the hammock to make sure I didn't forget it, and we all called it a pretty early night and got some rest.

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