People tried to warn me but it’s impossible to understand just how hard you work and how little time you get for yourself when working as a guide for Quetzaltrekkers. This explains my lack of recent posts but is set off by the buoyant feeling that lifts me out of bed in the mornings, for the time being I have almost certainly found what I was looking for. I was a hiker long before becoming a long-distance cyclist but in the year before setting out for Alaska was unable to walk any distance because of knee injuries. The time I’ve spent on the bike has strengthened up my knees redressed muscle imbalances and set me free again. It had been a dream of mine to work as a guide but those injuries beat that hope out completely. Although Quetzaltrekkers doesn’t take me to the high mountains that truly occupied my dreams, it does give a whole lot more than I’d really ever imagined.
A couple of days ago I made my second trip up Tajumulco, the highest point in Central America. Despite a few annoyances and hiccups that had me and fellow guide Ginny running up the mountain in less than two hours, the trip was a resounding success; a great group of clients, clear skies and an awe-inspiring full moon. With the sun rising and clients huddled in their sleeping bags on the summit, I had a rare time to indulge my own thoughts, something that I had taken for granted when surrounded by them on the bike. It struck me that a year ago to the day I had been recuperating in Urique, at the bottom of the deepest Canyon in North and Central America. And now there I was, on the top of Central America… life really is what you make of it.
I’ve also had the privilege of guiding groups of various sizes numerous time up Volcan Santa Maria and from Xela on a beautiful three-day route over to San Pedro on Lake Atitlan. All the hikes own a personality and can potentially fill you with that ‘once in a lifetime’ feeling; whether its watching Santiaguito erupt from the summit of Santa Maria as the sun rises behind you, watching the sun set behind Tajamulco from its second summit, Cerro de Concepcion, or sipping from a hot cup of coffee as the sun rises across Lago Atitlan (thought by many to be the most beautiful lake in the world). Every time I do these hikes I notice something new and different and most times I’ll also get to meet new and generally interesting people.
I’ve spent a long time on the bike trying to get away from tourists so it’s with great relief and enjoyment that I now get to spend serious time with many new and interesting people who speak my language. They may not be Guatemalteco and many of them are soon forgotten, but still there are a few who make there mark on me and remind me again that there is a whole world of opportunities out there for us citizens of the richer world. I remember one young Dutch couple in particular who exclaimed on the hike down from our viewpoint over Lago Atitlan that the hike had been the best and most exciting thing they had ever done in their lives and how it was impossible for them to imagine what it must be like for me doing the hike over and over. In the context of the experiences and adventures I have had over the previous two years this 47km hike is a bit of a walk in the park and it is perhaps this that qualifies me as a guide. However, this park is composed of incredibly varied terrain, all of distinct beauty and great Guatemalteco character. After being transient for two years it is extremely valuable to really get to know a landscape and its corresponding cultures. I remember when I once saw Reinhold Messner speak he went on at length about how adventuring was not subjective and should be judged only on the exploits of the bravest in the field, I respect his ability to being arguably the best mountaineer ever, but here he is wrong; that young Dutch couple were adventuring, just as I felt I was when pushing my bike up dusty jeep trails out of the Copper Canyon, setting camp in the Alaskan wilderness, or breaking down at the indescribable majesty of the Grand Canyon. And I totally understand where they are coming from as standing on top of Volcan Santa Maria during my first ever hike with Quetzaltrekkers (then as a client) I was filled with an injection of emotion and wonder that had been missing for the previous few months on the bike.
So, I’m having a great time with a group of amazing fellow Quetzaltrekkers who are sadly starting to disband as is the way with a volunteer organisation. We are relatively unique as a volunteering oganisation in that there really are no permanent or paid staff. Everyone is a volunteer and between us we do everything; we run the business and the treks… we are Quetzaltrekkers and it is us, just as it has always been during its 16 years in existence and for the 280 other volunteers who have come through. We are the fund-raising branch of Escuela De La Calle (EDELAC) a school set up to help Xela’s street children and also runs the Hogar Abierto which houses 15 children from difficult backgrounds or who otherwise would not have the opportunities they deserve for education. They rely on us to survive and that is why we all do what we do and invest so much of yourselves in the organisation. I didn’t join QT for the kids but now it is for them that I invest myself in the cause. I’ve never really liked kids and still find them difficult but weekly meals with and football with the children of the Hogar have served to instill a pride and calling that has crept up on me slightly unexpectedly. It is this that bonds us and drives us to work 12 hour days everyday. Every prospective new guide has a trial week where they learn to understand this and we learn to understand whether they share this drive… needless to say that not everyone has the commitment or abilities we need.
Despite the responsibility that comes with the job, the days out hiking are really the easy ones, in a way the reward for painstaking preparation. We pride ourselves on making all the food for the treks from scratch and surprise many of our clients with our attention to detail. But without a succesful business there would be no hikes. As such there are about 25 positions of responsibility that we share amongst us. When I started there were 15 guides and the workload relatively evenly spread, now there are 12 and soon there will only be 7. So if you feel the calling to come and invest at least three months with us let me know. These responsibilities range from doing all the finances to managing the cooking (for all treks and we eat all meals as a group). My personal responsibilities are currently managing promotions and looking after our website, in the next week they will escalate to include coordinating emails and writing our monthly news letter. We’re always busy and frequently get up before 5am, but after a year and a half swanning around with no responsibilities and a commitment only to myself, this is what I need and craved. In the process I am learning about where I want to go in future years, skills that have lain dormant for too long and personality traits that have been tamed since leaving the UK.
I do not know when I will leave my work here with Quetzaltrekkers, the rains of the rainy season have hit us over a month early and what ever happens it is very likely I’ll be riding out in them. My promise to myself was that I’d stay here until my wonderlust returned. That is back, spurred on by passing two cycle tourists on the bus drive over to Tajumulco and news that my new framebags are built and currently in transit through the USA. My craving for bike travel is back and strong but right now I am in place and contributing to a world that isn’t just money and love, it’s life.
I’m not sure whether life outside of the Quetzaltrekkers bubble really exists but communications with friends and family suggests it does. Every time I leave and return to Xela it feels more and more like home and I feel more and more like a Gringo Chavo. Right now I’m excited by what my friends are doing and waiting with great excitement for the visit of Alex and Katie, close friends that are only weeks from cycling into Xela. Another good friend from the UK, Chris, has also set out on his travels in South America, as is the trend, he is also recording his travels in a blog (Ramblings of a Rambler).