The story of Take Five was like all the others,
this time Rudolf was bleeding to death….through an engine bolt which had stripped itself clean of the engine, meaning for a long, slow and anxious ride back to the big bad “Guat-ay” (Guatemala City) and henceforth; a face, leg and foot covered in piping hot engine oil which was leaving the bolt hole quicker than I could pour it into the oil cap and I anticipated Rudolf’s final death rattle.
Still, the good folks at Yamaha Canella in the city were on hand and soon enough the bolt hole was plugged and re-tapped and I felt that, finally, all was well….I’d learned my lesson Mr.Saw.
After a few trial rides along with my trusty mechanical cohort Ian on his BMW 650GS, there was still one more problem to solve; a leaking battery easily solved, and though I finally felt that I was ready to leave, I was hardly brimming with confidence in Rudolf.
The next morning, two months almost to the day after arriving in
Antigua, I opened the door of our cabin at Lorenzo’s Valhalla Macadamia farm and looked at Rudolf, sitting there waiting to go, wondering how much further he could go and thinking of all the places we’ve been, the times I look across to him sitting there whilst I eat lunch and just laugh to myself at the whole thing. I pack quickly, couldn’t wait to move again, to fire up the bike, slip into the tiny space on the saddle, clunk into first gear and move off, to feel the fresh wind in my face, wind my way down the road unshackled from my thoughts….and to get the heck out of Antigua!
But I couldn’t, because I couldn’t find the flippin’ road.
I asked again and again, for there were no signposts and I could tell by the peoples quizzical faces and the way they rotated my map or put their fingers to places nearer Panama than my destination that no one knew of the road I wanted. So, I decided there was nothing for it but to follow my instincts, but even these were telling me in muffled tones that “You need GPS!” and so I ignored them too and followed my nose instead, damned instincts, and….eventually, found it beyond the hectic humdrum of the busy and bustling smokey town of Chimeltenango.
This lead me finally on to the dirt road to Joyabaj and the locks to the shackles released, the chains floated off and I – literally – took a huge deep gulp of fresh air, the sweetness of which I can only seem to find whilst aboard Rudolf.
I was heading towards the Ixil Triangle
, made up of the three mountain villages; Nebaj, Cotzal and Chajul, an area caught amidst the lengthy civil war that officially ended in only 1996. These villages have been largely undisturbed by modern outside influences and anyway I always like a ride in the mountains.
But with my lengthy time off the bike it takes me a little while to find my feet (not hard:they stink!); to pluck up courage to speak with locals, to ask for a photo, to be declined a photo again and again and still keep asking or to try new foods like chuchitos (a bit like a big brick of maize with meat and sauce inside), or the abundant odd fruits like jocuotes (big stone, plum like), granadia (fruit frogspawn), or dragon fruit (an organic dragon’s egg filled with bright pink flesh!). But I quickly meet nice people in nice places and soon find a good camp spot on my way to Nebaj and, despite still being anxious over Rudolf, am soon back in my stride and content once more.
Nebaj is reached and quickly passed, unspectacular and disappointing, leaving me wondering what all the fuss is about in the guide books and reports, until that is I reach San Gaspar Chajul; a ramshackle village of wooden huts set about the mountains besides dusty rutted streets, where women wash laundry or weave sat in the shade of their house porches, children with knotted hair play penny pitch – with bottle tops – in the streets, and the men make their way to their fields perched precariously somewhere in “them there hills.”
I walk for an age along the rough streets, despite sweating buckets on the steep slopes in my riding gear, looking around in awe, looking for photos or mainly just being laughed at! I’m far from being the first gringo to have visited this popular spot, but perhaps the first to have walked to the very edge of town and here in particular the children gorp, run away screaming, start to cry or practice saying hello in Spanish (the first language being Ixil). Women try to sell me cloth skirts and, whilst being exceptionally made I exclaim that “I’m not a girl!” and they laugh all the more. Others make fun of my hair, my boots and quickly I learn the word for gringo in Ixil and start to catch people, turning to point them with a joking scorn! Despite being very kind people, they decline every photo I ask for. So with no photos and as sticky a snail’s armpit in my sweaty motorcycle suit, I hit the road.
But apparently the road doesn’t exist and the interrogations, like in Chimeltenango before, continue. Pointed this way, then that way, then back the way I came, then back again and so on, they tell me it’s very far, doesn’t exist, is very bad, or that I must go back to the main road, making me understand why they haven’t had any outside influence!
“But it must exist, it’s on the map!” I say to the lady shop owner and group of men, who all eye each other before shaking their heads and saying, as if in conspiracy;
“Ohh, no, no.”
So I just ignore their directions to turn back too, and keep going. They must have thought me stupid going seemingly in the wrong direction. But, as I go, another junction, another dirt road and down each one; a dead end, another village, another instruction to return, or perhaps just riding a loop back to a vertex of the Ixil triangle….a land based twin of the Bemuda Triangle perhaps? A waterfall marks another dead end, but a spectacular one and I sit there to eat lunch, watching a Mayan woman launder on the rocks amidst the frothing waters, her son perched on the banks waiting patiently, wondering if I should just give this one up.
But rested and fully fed the negative thoughts quickly dissolves and I find the road eventually, the start of which is marked by a group of armed guards who obtain for me permission to go to Ushpantan. The guard gives me very specific instructions, complicated directions and tells me NO PHOTOS and I push on, only to get lost 50m after the gate trying to remember his instructions among the web of dirt roads. Another guard with a whopping big rifle points the way and I follow the crystal blue river through the valley village….and get lost again. Another chap points he way; to a small col in the mountains trying to pierce the atmosphere about three billion metres higher, “that’s the way to Ushpantan, not this way,” he says, gesturing with pouted lips and a backwards tilt of the head, the Gautemalan way of pointing, (from now on I’ll call this a “Gwout”) and I turn about to find the track (lost many time again) and Rudolf and I just barely manage to surmount the peak such was its steepness, leaving Rudolf red hot!
It was worth it though, a great stretch and I drop into Ushpantan I stock up and, with the rainy season in full flow, nip out of town quickly to try and find camp before the regular evening downpour. However, it’s a highly populated stretch of road which gives no hope of finding camp; farms, steep cliffs, a river and mountains all barring the way until in the final desperate minutes before the deluge I find a steep rocky track which gives some hope but that takes me, despairingly, to a farmer’s front door. Carlos, the farmer, clearly without the pressures of time, or much else it seems, sits on his stoop sorting through some black beans surrounded by chickens, and I ask him anxiously if I camp on his driveway, before the rain.
“Yeah, just go there…” he says Gwouting to point the way. I put my tent up as he continues shelling beans and his tough, quiet wife leans on the stable door to the house, watching me as if I were stark raving mad, though even I had to wonder when it started pouring down ferociously with rain and I was left dodging lightning forks.
In the rising mists the following morning I get a little time to actually talk with my host, Carlos, between downpours at least. He’s a man of little intrigue and few words, leaving me to do the talking. I ask him every question I can conjure up in my limited Spanish including “what’s inside your house? Does it always rain so much here? and do you like fish?” But soon the rain is falling again and Carlos slowly walks back to carry on with his beans and tell his wife how boring I am whilst I pack up in the rain. They continue to watch from the porch and I go to thank them before tip-toeing down the rough track aboard Rudolf in the rain back to the main road towards Coban.
This stretch, to Coban, is notorious for being closed due to the heavy rains and landslides. Here, children walk from their homes up the road to known spots to move rocks and clear the way after the night’s rain in the hope of receiving a small monetary tip from drivers, though more often than not on this quiet stretch I find them playing when I round the corners, and the sound of my engine galvanises them into action!
The rain stops momentarily, just enough time to get a puncture….and then it starts again.
I hate punctures. Number 53 was no different.
People come to watch me repair it and tell me the road is closed
ahead. I contemplate my rather crappy spot, a puncture in the mud and rain, and remember my last puncture, at 4am in Xela and wonder if Mr.Saw thinks I still haven’t quite learned my lesson? Puncture fixed (take that Mr.Saw!), I can’t figure out why the road was closed, a huge landslide that occurred two years ago still remains, impressive too, and the “temporary” route around was choc-full of trucks, engines off, not moving, and I couldn’t make it past. I had two options, sit and wait and hope something might happen, or turn around and find a way around. I simplified this to:
- do nothing, or
- do something.
So, I turned around without much thought, asked a truckie to use his compressor to seat my stubborn tire – failing – and then stopped in a garage to try again, finally successful. And then stop at a little shack to eat a snack watching young girls walking through the rain with bowls of maize kernels atop there heads ready to be ground in to flour for tortillas.
It was only much later, after a late lunch in a rainless spot, when I looked at the map and considered how far I now had to go to get to Coban….it was a long way and I wondered if I had perhaps been a bit hasty in making my decision. I tried to convince myself for the rest of the day, whilst I rode, that I hadn’t been too hasty. But at camp that night, I quickly concluded the complete opposite that I was indeed a hasty twit. This starts a whole train of thoughts including even if this whole trip isn’t a complete waste of time – I get this occasionally, and only point it out in the interests of being honest, it’s not all roses – tired of being wet, having to look for hours for mediocre camp spots, punctures, worrying about the bike breaking again, and kind of actually wanting to be mindless in an office or in front of the TV seems like a great prospect!!
Alas, it didn’t last, it never does, with a bit of sleep and as all was not lost, as I had noticed a dirt track on the map, heading out east to Rabinal
, meaning at least I didn’t have to go all the way back to near Antigua as I’d first thought and all my negative thoughts were dispelled! It was a nice stretch of steep dirt road too that required more asking for directions, and more Gwouting
from the locals, great lunch spots by rivers, friendly visitors and even a panaderia in the mountains that sold cubiletes! In Cubulco, a small town on my way to Rabinal I notice the rather slick looking cowboys, carrying machetes in decorated scabbards looped on to a thick belt around their Lee Jeans over cowboy boots, and fitted shirts with tassles or subtly decorated shoulders shaded by a big cream white sombrero, and a very good Zapata Moustache
. Though they too declined photos!
That night looking for camp I find my way up a track behind a small mountain which catches me out when it turns into a narrow single track path cut into the mountain side. It’s very, very steep, to either side, but certainly more so going down. As I almost complete a turning maneuver with deft control of the clutch and breaks, the ground gives way….sending me careering backwards; handlebars over head, front wheel rising up into the air, looking at the blue sky.
I contemplate falling 300m.
I have a conversation with Rudolf, thanks for the good times, sorry for being so hard on you, it was fun while it lasted, it had to end sometime, that sort of thing until, luckily a sturdy bush halted my fall and my ribs halt Rudy. I untangle my bruised, burnt and knotted legs quickly free of the bike and start thinking about how to get Rudolf upright….a quick spot of trigonometry tells me that it will be difficult proposition on such a steep face. I whip the bags off double quick, petrol dripping out in a steady flow onto the sunburnt dry shrubs and a few hernias later I have Rudy on two wheels and I’m starting to feel like that snail’s armpit again. Rudolf reminds me that not everything is fun, payback…or that tricky devil Mr.Saw again.
Then I just stand there holding him upright, catching my breath, contemplating that I talk to my motorcycle and wondering what next to do. How the flippin’ heck will I make it back on to the track? I slip again in my first attempt, what with the weight on the steep slope and loose dirt and begin my slow tumbling descent to the bottom again, and then putting hernias on my hernias to drag it out of another bush and pick it up again. But now, further down the slope, the easiest thing to do – still tricky and also rather dicey – is ride downhill to a small plateau and hope I can maintain enough speed to keep it in the 10bhp “powerband” and gun it back up to the track, and luckily, with a bit of buckaroo action, I manage it! Thoughts of finding camp are replaced with thoughts of a cold coke so I back-track a long way to a tienda (village shop) to grab one, and drink it in the shade still dripping with sweat, watched by giggling girls, a well spent 24pence.
Finally at camp I discover that another one of the engine bolts is loose, is it stripped? I don’t know, but riding on the next day towards Coban lunching in a chayote (vegetable pear) field, I see that the bolt is loose again and I know that it is stripped, meaning a return trip to the city, that like a lot of travelers, I’d planed to avoid.
The great folk at Yamaha Canella decide to repair all remaining three threads, just in case. Then they notice the electrics are shot too and start fixing that….and they are still fixing it now, weeks later, having sent the stator off to be rewired five times or more! Luckily Julio and his wife Luisa, who’d been so helpful in the early days of problems, were on hand again and kind enough to let stay with them. But, with the days turning to weeks and with my visa running out (for not only Guatemala, but the CA4 (Guate, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua)), means I’ve spent three months here and only travelled about 10 days. I decide with much consideration of all the facts, and many days going back and forth on the idea, to buy a new bike.
With so much time lost, Julio points out that making it to Ushuaia for the summer season will be a bit of a rush and maybe I should find some work or volunteer. Then, as luck would have it one of Luisa’s employees walks out of her teaching position, and poses an interesting opportunity for me not to be missed, as well I can help Luisa at the same time too. So, now I am teaching here until August, staying with the VERY generous Andres who’s letting me stay free of charge! Then I’ll fly home for a few months of work there, see the family and meet my niece for the first time…and try and recoup some money before returning to Gautemala to continue, giving me plenty of time to go slowly to Ushuaia.
BUT…..I still had one important decision to make, which bike to buy? My budget was hardly grand, I was done with YBR’s and wanted something different, and I finally settled on a Honda XR 125, which I’ve just taken delivery of! To say I am happy to have some wheels again is an understatement!
It’s a good job I didn’t make any plans.
Special thanks to Julio, Luisa, Andres, Ian and all those at Yamaha Canella!