Sunday, December 13, 2015


By the time I woke up at Greengo's in the morning, the Belgians were on the way on the bus. I got my things packed up slowly, procrastinating because I didn't want to get back on the horrible road out of Semuc Champey. But eventually, the time came for my offroad skills to be tested once more.

And it was quite a test.

Step 1 was to get the bike back up the stairs the led to Greengo's. The guy behind the desk collected two younger dudes to help out, and we went to go try to get this 450 lbs bike up a stairway that I'd be hesitant to carry a heavy box down.

It started out well. We got the bike turned around on the path by picking up the back end and just setting it down where we wanted it. I made the way down the path and set up at the bottom of the stairs and waited til we got set up, each of them on either side of the back side of the bike, hands on the luggage rack. And then we headed up the stairs.

Stair by stair we went, with me using the clutch and throttle to give us some push, and them giving a little push anytime the tire started slipping, which was happening often given that the stairway wasn't completely dry from the rain the night before. We got to the slightly steeper section, and things got a little tougher, but we kept going. And then we got to the super steep part at the top.

And suddenly, I didn't have enough traction to keep the bike moving forward. The back wheel skidded, which made it start to go sideways too, and it was all I could do to keep the bike upright, while the two guys were behind me pushing. For a brief second, it felt like all three of us were about to go sliding down the stairs underneath the bike. After sliding back down a few steps, I decided to just go for it, and gunned the engine. I got up the last few steps, but the shock of the bumps from the steps almost made me drop the bike right there. Once I got it under control, I parked it on the road there, and thanked the guys who helped profusely, including giving them 100Q for the trouble. All three of us were drenched in sweat and breathing hard, but we'd done it.

As I started to pack my things onto the bike, I noticed that the force of them trying to lift the entire bike by the luggage rack had popped it slightly out of place, so I had to sit with a wrench and loosen a few things, slide it back into place, and then tighten them back up again. The entire time I'm sweating so much it's dripping off me, despite having only my motorcycle pants on and no shirt. But eventually, I got the bike packed all the way up, steeled myself once again for a shitty road, and started on my way.

I made it all of half a mile before I hit a muddy patch from the rain and my back wheel started sliding up next to me, the bike traveling down the road almost sideways. The tire finally caught, throwing me off the bike for what was now the third time that I'd put the bike down on the trip.

Fortunately, I landed on my feet and was able to not reinjure my ankle. Even more fortunate was that I'd gone down just in front of the entrance for the tour of the pools that we'd done a few days before, and there was quickly a crowd of boys around me ranging from maybe eight years old up to the seventeen year old guide we had for the tour of the pools. They all chipped in and helped me get the bike back up on its tires - no easy feat given the angle it went down at - and guide it down to a flatter spot where I could evaluate it.

Unfortunately, this time when it went down the brake lever on the right had gotten bent quite a ways out of place by a rock that was sticking up. It was still grabbable, but it was a pretty far stretch. Given the road I knew I had on the way out, and the amount of braking down steep hills it involved, I decided it was worth the time to pull out the spare shift lever that I had in my saddlebag and put it on.

Just from getting the bike back upright and standing around for a few minutes, I was drenched in sweat again, so I took off the jacket and my t-shirt, and started pulling tools off the bike to swap out the lever. The whole time, the group of boys around me continued chattering in what I assume was Qeqchi, the native language of the area. Exclamations followed when I opened up the tool tube I'd attached to the skid plate and pulled out some wrenches, and when I started pulling off the lever.

It only took maybe twenty minutes to get the lever off, put the new one on and adjust the play, and get the mirror locked back into position from where it had gotten bent, but it felt like a long time with the sun beating down on my sweaty scalp. Eventually I got everything set, tested out the brakes a few times to make sure I wasn't going to take off and not have any, and then I started getting everything put away and got on my way. It's a pretty minor maintenance thing, but it was the first time I'd done it, and I managed it without any problems or guidance, so I was pretty happy with myself.

And off I went down the road again, keeping a much closer eye on the muddy patches this time. The road was definitely wetter than it had been on the way in, so there were quite a few, but eventually I made it to a couple places where there were two concrete pads a car's width apart that I remembered being close to the pavement on the way in.

Sure enough, not long after I got up to the pavement that I'd seen on the way in - and this time I got to take the road. But first, I parked the bike, pulled off my helmet, and knelt down and kissed the pavement. As I pulled my helmet back on, I flashed a smile to the old woman on the corner who was looking at me like I might be crazy, and took off down the beautiful, beautiful pavement.

It didn't take me too long to arrive in Coban, the next big city, and I knew from people who had taken the bus to Semuc Champey that there was a McDonald's there with good internet. I haven't been so happy to see Golden Arches down the road in a long time. I took a stop there to rest after the stressful morning, get a Big Mac that I enjoyed way more than I should have, and pull out my laptop to look up directions to Antigua. I was still without a GPS and therefore navigating by a combination of memory and asking for directions, so I studied the map carefully this time - I wasn't about to make the same mistake of asking someone for directions and getting sent down some horrible "road" that works for locals but was hell for me.

It turns out that most of the route was just fine, as it was (for once) well marked with signs. My route led me around the outskirts of the capital city, so I was able to get there pretty easily. But then things got a little trickier - I didn't see any signs for Antigua as I was approaching the city, so I stopped at a gas station and asked for directions.

I'm not sure if it was fatigue from riding so much or something else, but I was really struggling to understand the directions people were giving me. Or at least, I apparently was, because while I thought I understood them, I ended up not seeing any of the landmarks or signs that I thought I'd heard them describe. So after the highway I was on turned into something labeled 11th avenue, I pulled over and asked again.

I still was struggling understanding the directions, but when I saw the frustration mounting on their faces as they described where I should go and I kept giving a confused look, I decided ot just take off for a bit and then ask again. They gave me similar directions, but I still couldn't find a single sign indicating the way to Antigua. Even more frustrating, I kept hearing them repeat some word that I hadn't ever heard from anyone else - "Recto, recto, recto!" they kept saying. I swear I'd never heard a single Mexican person use that word when I'd asked for directions, and after numerous failures to find the "ring road" around the city, I was getting pretty frustrated, and it was starting to get dark.

I ended up getting to it eventually, but I'd gotten delayed so much that it was now rush hour, and the traffic on the road was practically at a standstill. After waiting in a lane for a while and watching motorcycle after motorcycle lane-split past me (and watching my temperature gauge rise and rise), I decided it was time to try my hand at Central American lanesplitting.

I'm glad that I lived in California for a couple years before this and got pretty used to lanesplitting there, because otherwise there's no way I could have managed this on my heavy, tall bike, loaded down, with much narrower lanes, not to mention the occasionally ridiculous traffic pattern that involved cars turning left off the highway. But little by little I made progress, passing school buses and vans (and eating far more of their exhaust than I'd like), and found a sign that had a name I recognized from a couple of the people I'd asked directions from.

When I finally saw a sign for Antigua, I rejoiced - the highway split off and cleared up, and from then on the traffic was almost non-existent, though it was night time now. Had it not been a relatively populated road that still had enough traffic to see the road clearly in their headlights as well as mine, I probably would have stopped for the night somewhere, just because I really don't want to be riding at night. The chance of hitting a bad pothole or an animal running into the road is enough to worry about without the often poor drivers of Central America, so I'd avoided it until now.

Finally, the highway swept back and forth down a hill and shrunk down to a cobblestone street. A few directions later, I pulled up to the hostel that the Belgians had headed for, and pulled my motorcycle just inside the door.

And I was just in time: after a quick shower and change of clothes, I headed up to the open-air terrace and indulged in the hostel's Thanksgiving dinner. Not exactly your traditional American one, but it was one of the better meals I've had in a while. A delicious mushroom soup was the starter, and the main plate included turkey with gravy, jellied cranberry sauce, and a really good take on stuffing. It was even arranged nicely on the plate and garnished.

I'd been a little late ordering, so while most of the hostel was at a large table of 18 or so people eating together, the Belgians and I ate at our own little kids table off to the side. While I missed my family immensely, it was nice to be with familiar faces for Thanksgiving.

I was thankful to have made it through the test of my offroad riding with only minor issues. I was thankful for travel partners, for people to practice my French with, and friends to have a good time with on a day that had been, with the exception of one other time in the past 30 years, something I did with family.

But I found myself realizing that one of the things I was most thankful on this particular day was knowing that there were people waiting for me. The whole time I was riding down that horrible road, I kept thinking about how I could just stop and pull over. And when I finally got to pavement, I was so exhausted, stressed, and tense, that I wanted to just find a hotel. I wanted to sit at that McDonald's for hours just to aovid riding. But through all of that, I kept going because I knew there were people waiting for me when I arrived.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how thankful I am to have that back home too. I know that I'm off on my own for a while now, not necessarily drifting aimlessly, but without very many connections to home. At times it's difficult and I struggle with it, but one of the things that keeps me going is knowing that I have my family in Florida, my family in Rockford, and my friends (really, another family) back in San Diego waiting for me as well.

And for that, I'm thankful.

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