For the full photo diary of this part of the tour please click here
Trundling along the gravel road towards Sebol I had a route revelation, one that has steered me away from Peten and into Frontera on the Rio Dulce. For weeks now I’ve been trying to make up my mind on a route up into Belize via Peten, kind of stupid as there are only two roads heading north, but I’ve been trying to work it so that I’ll retrace my steps as little as possible on my return to Guatemala. I’d been concurrently considering how I might make more of an exploration of Belize that otherwise would be just a few days dull transit. I turned the fold in my map and the obvious answer jumped out and bit me on the nose; I’ll do what so many other cycle tourists do, I’ll take a boat. Sailing out of Punta Gorda on the south end of Belize and into either Livingston or Puerto Barrios is a really popular route amongst cycle tourists. For some reason I’d discounted it but making this journey in reverse is perfect for me. My Dad had always assumed this is the way I’d go because the Peten roads weren’t on his map, maybe I’ll listen next time.
So there we go, I’m lounging by the Rio Dulce, meditating on the rhythmic schlop of the boats bobbing in the Marina to my right, instead of forging north into Peten. Its so humid down here that I’m probably sweating just as much as I would have been pushing the pedals. One things for sure though, as I settle in behind my mosquito net tonight at Hacienda Tijax I won’t be reminiscing about the glory of camping in the jungle. High heat, humidity and a plague of ticks don’t make for a contemplative evening under canvas. I had a lot of fun getting here nonetheless.
I’d heard other tourists describe what one guy called the ‘Gringo’s Zoo‘ the phenomenon where local people get captivated by the opportunity to study the strange helmeted alien that has just rolled into their world. A few days ago I experienced it after somehow managing to wrangle myself a night’s shelter from a terrific storm in the small village of Aldea- San Marcos Carjux, Alta Verapaz. It had been an enjoyable jaunt north out of Coban after I had finally made up my mind to ride Highway 5 via San Pedro Carcha instead of the more undulating yet totally paved road up through Chisec. A gorgeous glide up and down through the foothills of the Sierra de Chama took me via fantastic paved surface through villages that echoed to the sound of Evangelism. It was Sunday morning and everyone seemed to be heading for higher ground and the churches that command the top of the tallest hills in and around these communities. After a picturesque and relaxed lunch I sped downhill to the turnoff for Lanquin and Semuc Champey. It was here that things started to become interesting.
The pavement fell down to the right, spiraling into a mash of anonymous heat haze, my route carried straight on, careering straight into some dayglow wooden barriers and a stern looking guy in a hard hat. At 2:30 in the afternoon I discovered that this road, my road, was closed, the next two miles subject to intense saving/rebuilding and deemed too dangerous for cyclists. With no option I sank back into a shady spot, digging out my long forgotten book. An overpriced sugary coffee, countless conversations, a bit of rain and two and half hours later the road reopened to vehicle traffic. I was fortunate that a relatively empty truck was able to take me through the ‘danger’ zone. Squeezed in with Shermy and a rather unsure young Mayan lady we bounced around in the back of the truck as it bounded over the precarious temporary surface. Abyss threatened my right side and cliffs crowded in from the left as my driver succeeded in convincing me of his credentials as the reincarnation of Colin McRae. Through the worst of it the road surface barely improved. I could neither work out where the construction ended nor communicate with the driver to stop and drop me off. As fantastic unpaved riding slipped away beneath the truck never to be reclaimed I became anxious that I was missing out.
My fears were unfounded. Having unintentionally subjected my female truck companion to a barrage of teasing and cat calls for sharing her space with a hairy gringo we soon pulled into a large village and I was released back into the wild. The so-called highway had by this point condensed down to a narrow and in places aggressively unpaved track that burrowed through thick jungle vegetation. I picked my way through the familiar heckles of Sunday afternoon drunks and into a fairytale jungle world. Traffic was nonexistent, a pack of territorial dogs my only company. Time was ticking on and the light fading, the weakening sun obscured behind a black wall of cloud that swept in, sucking everything into its rumbling world of lightning and blissfully cooling rain. The rain came harder than ever, transforming the road into a muddy torrent. Soaked to the skin I kept my granny gear spinning up the gentle upwards slopes onto which I’d been dropped, on until an unexpected fork in the road. Which way to go? I rested my sopping bike shorts onto Shermy’s top tube and as water streamed down my legs and gushed over my shoes, settled in to wait for a passer-by to point me in the right direction. It was here that I was hit by one of the hallelujah moments that sometimes come to pass. Arms outstretched, head tilted up into the storm I smiled, then laughed, hysterical with the absurd hilarity of the situation.
By the time I reached San Marcos Carjux the light had all but died and I had begun asking folks for space to pitch up, easier said than done as few of them spoke Spanish, a fact I failed to recognize until later. The road was lined with such dense foliage that slipping off the road and into any semblance of a camp spot was simply not an option. This was when I chanced upon a family with a veranda they were willing to have me shelter under. It was now dark, the muddy river of a road sitting a meter below the veranda, illuminated only by the repetitive blasts of lightning. Six of us huddled in silence cowering from the ferocity of the storm until a brief abatement brought the Mayan masses my way. They bought candles, their mothers and children to come and marvel at the deluded white ghost that had sloshed his way rudely into their lives. Wooden boards were fetched and lain over the dirt to give me a level platform on which to lay my sleeping bag and a buzz of excitement rippled through the assembled crowd with every new marvel that appeared from my panniers. After the revelation my tent and stove had proven to be a few nights earlier I elected to eat cold oatmeal and sleep without the tent. Removing some complication from the bedding down process but raising questions of how I was going to get out of my soaked clothes and into my sleeping bag and certainly not solving the problem of the steadily increasing pressure in my bowels.
My major concern was being a let down, I had the overwhelming urge to sing or put on some kind of performance for my audience, provide some justification for their attentions. My singing voice is unfortunately not as good as I sometimes think and my tap dancing days were over before they began so instead I dug out pictures of my family and built an act around my Jaw harp. My Mum, Dad and sister indeed fascinated them for quite a while and I thought of them thousands of miles away going about their everyday lives. How would they react if a Mayan guy rode up on a horse… very different to my new friends I am sure. Once the hubbub again died the Jaw harp reinjected an energy that I sustained by taking their picture and passing around the result. I think I managed to give them the show they craved and deserved but was still mighty relieved when the appearance of my toothbrush prompted their melting away into the night.
A fitful night interrupted a few times by torch lights shining in my face led to a dawn repeat of the evenings fascinations. This time the adults hung back giving me an exclusive audience with their children. As their confidence grew they delighted in trying on my helmet, playing with my bungee cords and having their pictures taken. Ordinarily awkward around children I had real fun and was grateful for the opportunity to overcome my fear and reluctance of photographing people. A welcome cup of sweet hot coffee from my host and many laughs later I got back on the bike and pumped up out of the wispy clouds of the valley. I will savor this first experience in the Gringo’s zoo and am so incredibly glad I have been given the opportunity to help redress a balance that has long disturbed me. I feel the traveling mentality of many westerners to be sickeningly voyeuristic. I saw them in the large colonial towns of Mexico, strolling around in their wide-brimmed hats and Teva’s, expensive SLR’s strung around their necks. These people bus from one town to another, alighting to marvel at the strange exotic people and cultures, rudely photographing unsuspecting locals through long lenses. This truly is the human zoo in action and makes me uncomfortable. I am much more excited by the equally uncomfortable feeling that comes with being that oddity myself. Now don’t get me wrong and forgive me my arrogance, I recognize my hypocrisy and am no better than the tourists I slate in my quest to see and ‘understand’ others cultures, it is just that I can wrap my voyeurism up in the purpose of cycling and more significantly, with experiences like I’ve had with the indigenous inhabitants over the last week, I can pay back a bit of the fascination. I would love to return to the village with prints of the pictures I took, but sadly know I never will.
Ten miles and some tricky descents on loose gravel into the morning I was down at 1,500 feet, a stretch of faultless new pavement had appeared and jungle time was in full swing. The hardtop took me rapidly through the town of Fray Bartolome and twenty miles out the other side back onto far more interesting gravel surfaces. From here almost 50 miles of winding and isolated jungle adventure transported me through countless small communities of wooden thatched abodes and on to Modesto Mendez and boring pavement. It was 12 miles before Modesto Mendez that I ‘enjoyed’ my worst night yet under canvas. It was stiflingly hot and I had to immediately retreat into the tent for the plague of Ticks. For the second night running I dined on cold oatmeal accompanied by small sips of my very limited water resources. I was dusty, greasy and dehydrated and by the morning I was all those things with the addition of some rather choice mosquito bites below the belt line. Still, it was a beautiful spot and gave me the context from which to enjoy my current luxuries. I was desperate for fluids the next morning but the numerous small roadside tiendas selling Pepsi and water bags only served to frustrate. Nobody would serve me. As I approached the villages I could see the women fleeing and hiding. At two shops I could even see them hiding out back but still couldn’t summon them to come and take my money. Was it fear, intimidation or resentment? All questions for me to take with me on my upcoming boat trip to Punta Gorda, Belize.