For the full photo diary of my time in Xela please click here
This whole learning Spanish thing is bloody hard! I always figured it would be but thought that with a bit of application I’d get something out of it. Problem is that I’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with my bike, an infatuation that’s led me to packing in Spanish school. With confidence at an all time low I turned my back on Utatlan Spanish school, said farewell to my host Guatemalan family and moved into a hostel in preparation for cycling out of Xela. Then the sun came out, my head stopped spinning and I’ve settled on giving Spanish another try, this time on my terms.
Christmas and New Years in Xela has proven to be quite an explosive experience. They love fireworks up here, they love them like us English like to moan about the weather, its ingrained in the national psyche. The frequency and volume of explosions had been steadily climbing for a while before reaching a timely crescendo as the clock ticked over to midnight on Christmas Eve. In this moment the whole place went berserk. And they don’t give a damn over here about firework safety. I’ve routinely seen kids holding lit fireworks as their parents proudly look on. Nothing matters but the flash and the bang and although some of what I’ve seen has been downright scary, I’ve not witnessed many folk walking around with severe facial burns, so they must at least kind of know what they’re doing. Surprising when fireworks are sold from market stalls opposite the central park where the majority of them seem to be set off. You really do take your life in your hands strolling in that area at this time of year, those fireworks seldom fire in the direction they’re supposed to. And it’s always ‘hilarious’ to see people browsing the extensive selections of fireworks with a lit cigarette dangling from their lips. Health and safety rules are rubbish, these guys are having far too much fun.
Christmas day started slowly with a stroll around town. Camera in hand it was a good opportunity to familiarize myself with the city I expected to be my home for a month. I quickly discovered that if I’m going to fit in I’d better start drinking more; rabidly drunk guys staggered and slept all over the place. My defense mechanism to being accosted with pidgin English was to declare myself Brazilian, a tactic that proved surprisingly effective. Having managed to wind my way back to the hostel there seemed nothing better to do than enjoy a bit of bike maintenance. The grip shifter that changes my gears had completely snarled up on the pedal into Xela, leaving access to only two of the usual 14 gears. Turns out that the cable had fallen apart at both ends, in both the shifter and the click box. Without wire cutters I was unable to finish the job but pleased to discover the problem to be easily rectifiable.
Things got moving after a trip out to buy some beers and whiskey. With the other guests of the Black Cat Hostel also indulging in some festive drinking we eventually merged. A happy Christmas crew consisting of an Australian, three Canadians, American, Brazilian and myself celebrated the coming of Christ with pizza and beer. I am especially pleased to have met Amanda and Roberto, they had traveled up from the south shores of Lake Atitlan where they work for the Instituto Mesoamericano de Permacultura [IMAP]. IMAP describe themselves as “…a not-for-profit community organization focused on the development of self-sufficient communities through the responsible management of natural resources, using permaculture techniques and ancestral and traditional knowledge.” Sounds pretty interesting aye? I’m really looking forward to spending a few weeks working with them when I eventually leave Xela.
It was straight into intensive five hours a day Spanish tuition on Boxing day. The first day was fine, credited with fine pronunciation we ran through the basics that I’ve already picked up before getting started on the dreaded grammar. After an exhausting morning I was taken off to the home of my host Guatemalan family… I lasted five minutes. They wouldn’t let me take my bike into the room and there were two other girls there from the U.S.. I beat a hasty retreat and was rehoused with the lovely family of a guy that works at the school. Over the following week I fell apart. Under bombardment from grammar I didn’t want, any Spanish instinct I had completely deserted me and I lost all confidence. I changed teachers but the situation was dire. Depressed and confused it was an easy decision to throw in the towel.
The major reason why I failed was due to an inability to concentrate and devote time to study. Without a photographic memory I think it must be virtually impossible to take everything from such an intensive set-up. It obviously works for some, but having recently become obsessed with overhauling my bike set-up, I was more concerned with suspension forks and frame-bags. Every waking hour has been spent pondering, wondering and researching. It proved impossible to study in my room as Shermy was there… I’d end up sitting and staring, imagining her frame filled with bags and front wheel clasped by a suspension fork. Things wouldn’t improve if I relocated to the school, there I’d scour the internet familiarizing myself with bike set-up options and possibilities. I think I’ve become a cyclist… I dream about my bike… constantly.
So where has this obsession led me? Well, to start with, I’ve got myself in the queue for some custom Porcelain Rocket frame bags. I’ve traced the inside of my frame and sent the drawings up to Scott in Victoria, Canada. In two or three months time I’ll be the proud owner of a traditional frame bag, another bag that will sit behind my seat tube under the seat stays and a top tube pack. Needless to say, I’m really really excited… it’s like Christmas! Posts on forums and correspondence with Thorn have also revealed that a short travel suspension fork is a possibility for my frame set. I am determined to fit one but will wait until I have my frame bags before committing. It is my hope that a suss fork will mean no front panniers, I won’t know whether this is a realistic possibility until I have the frame bags in my hands. Have I mentioned how this project has completely consumed me?!?
My present this Christmas was the visit of Matt, my pal from back home in London. Matt and bike set-up obsession linked hands to clothesline any chance of me devoting my energies to Spanish study. Arriving armed with some desperately needed brake pads and cycling shorts, Matt hung around Xela for about six days. I’m lucky enough to frequently meet new and interesting people, but no one ever seems to approach the comfort and authenticity of true friends from home. A shared sense of humor, cultural orientation and general understanding for each other has made Matt’s visit the highlight of my time in Xela. I realise how ridiculous that sounds but travel is normal life to me now with home comforts the exception, the reverse of most people’s situation.
Team ‘Matt and Nathan’ have been known to indulge in a bit of hard-drinking in the past. Matt didn’t only bring me bike stuff, he also bought the party. I’ve become almost completely divorced from my party instincts over the course of this tour, something I’m actually pretty pleased about. All the same, it was a massive relief to have a couple of ‘heavy’ nights on the town. I think I needed it. It just so happened that one of these was New Years Eve… another opportunity for Guatemalans to indulge their love of pyrotechnics. We hit the bars and clubs with Eric, a local Guatemalan and his U.S. lady friend. Things were very different to what we’re used to. In Europe celebrations are based around the midnight chimes, here people spend the time up and through midnight at home with their families (probably trying to kill each other with fireworks). Only at about 1am do the parties really get started. It may have been this cultural difference that meant we didn’t see any other tourists the whole night… we really were the only gringo’s in the clubs.
I’ll treasure my memories of Matt’s visit; games of backgammon, catching up on the politics and current affairs of home and his dramatic search for hand-made Guatemalan textiles. Matt had arrived armed with a request from his mother to pick up some genuine fine hand sewn ponchos. She’s something of an expert in the field so my unfortunate friend found himself under a fair bit of pressure. Thus ensued battles over whether things were hand or machine-made and a nasty little episode involving the Police. In the end the trail led us up to Trama Textiles, a creditable cooperative that provided incredibly beautiful work with a bonus side helping of ethics. I really welcomed this surprise opportunity to become acquainted with local handicrafts. Women kneeling on home porches weaving and sewing has become an all too familiar sight in the Guatemalan villages I’ve cycled through. Now I have a handle on exactly what mastery is at work.
With the celebrations over and all disruptive (although welcome) distractions put back on the shelf, I’ve had a few days off, stealing myself for a fresh attack on the Spanish language. Living in a hostel and not with a family I’m enjoying welcome control over my time and meals. I’ve arranged a couple of hours tuition in the afternoons and vow to spend the rest of the time either speaking as much Spanish as possible or studying more technical points that are applicable to me. I don’t want to speak perfectly, I just want to be able to speak more. Excited by the opportunity to further broaden my agricultural experience with IMAP and having settled on a plan regarding my bike set-up, things are looking up again. Maybe the confusion of the last couple of weeks was a timely reminder that at some point I’ll have to stop touring, if so, then I’m terrified of life afterward… maybe I can stretch this thing out to three and a half years!