So my three months as a Quetzaltrekker are up and my life feels a little different to when I rolled into Xela over 5 months ago. That’s a long time to be in one place, two visa runs to Mexico’s worth to be exact. Three months of glorious hikes and unbelievable people, it all feels like a bit of a dream right now. I cannot lie, the last few weeks have had their ups and downs in both work and play, but when I remove myself from the craziness all conclusions are overwhelmingly positive. I’ve had some stark reminders of the pains and joys of everyday life; uncharacteristic times of tears diluted with periods of joy so intense I forgot it was possible. Why would I ever want to leave this place? The answers reflect many of the same reasons I left London and started cycling in the first place. What I ended up finding in Xela is more amazing to me than anything else encountered on this journey so far, surely it’s not possible such an experience can be repeated again down the line. But I thought my Fairbanks time was unsurpassable, and that in Vancouver, Mexico City and Flagstaff, yet here I am glowing with basic human optimism… welcome to the addiction of travel!
Another year has slipped under the radar and my bicycle themed quest for freedom is now over two years old. This time I have no great proclamations to make like I did on my years anniversary back in Zacatecas, Mexico, it’s all just time. Just a couple of weeks away from turning 32 I have recently started feeling my age for the first time; I don’t think in terms of planned future anymore but still its human nature to imagine what might be. I’m in the midst of a period of my life when pragmatism rules and that is one of the major objects of my point to travel. However, I reckon it would be a selfish and deluded man who could set his entire life stall out in this way… what about other people and all those other opportunities us western folk are lucky to have? Just like when I started riding up in Alaska and was amazed how everything so easily distilled itself down to the basics of human survival, now I have a similar thing with emotion. Life can be pretty trying, but if you surround yourself with the right people it can also be the most incredible ride imaginable. Spend some time in a country like Guatemala and frivolities of travel seem so insignificant and these truths so much more obvious.
Are these really the words of a solitary cyclist? Well yes, obviously. Everything for me is about context with my months alone on the bike paving the way for me to open up to people in Xela in ways unimaginable to the guy who flew into Anchorage two years ago. It sounds so incredibly naff to say I’m finding what I was looking for, but that statement does hold an element of clichéd truth. And what does all this waffle mean for the future of my bicycle tour? Absolutely nothing, I’m still thrilled by the prospect of cycling South America and excited by the improvements made to my bike set-up. Right now though I’m bored with philosophizing and embarrassed by the times past where I’ve poured my heart in this blog. No one is really interested in me, most of you just want to see some pretty photos, learn route information and satisfy your wonder over what happened to that British guy with the beard. So I’ll plug the gush and tell you what’s been going on…
It was thanks to the separate visits of Matt and Ben, two really good friends from London that I ended up finding Quetzaltrekkers and building a real life in Xela. Once I’d committed to three months working for EDELAC I quickly realised that it had opened up the chance I’d see my closest friends, Alex and Katie. They started riding their Long Haul Truckers in Wyoming last year and have been winding their way in a generally southerly direction ever since. Just so happens they found the end of their rainbow at a ranch in Michoacán, Mexico and committed to running that for 6 months. But before starting work they came down and spent 10 glorious days with Quetzaltrekkers. Shared history, passion for heavy rollers, unbelievable flatulence and a unique sense of humor… they are all that is my past, present and future.
Alex and Katie lived in our Guide House, helped out around Quetzaltrekkers and easily burst into the affections of all my friends here in Xela. Almost three years on bikes between us and many thousands of miles, but we’re exactly the same people. They joined the group I led up Tajumulco, the highest point in Central America and I wondered what it must be like for Alex who I hike with a lot back home to have me lead him. Then they joined me for what ended up being my 7th and last hike over to Lago Atitlan. On that trip we weren’t blessed with great views and the incredible speed of the group made a bit of a mockery of the route, but as my last hike with two of my closest guide friends, Katie and Jamie, this was a special moment for me and something I’ll think about a lot in the future. If nothing else, having Alex and Katie around has given my largely U.S. QT friends some context on what I say and do… the music I listen too, the lifestyle I reminisce about and miss from home, my passion for Blackpool Football club, a twisted pride at farting loud and proud, stupid shit, mastery of English slang and a passion for cycling.
Alex and I found ourselves running through all our friends enabling me to catch up on the recent births, deaths and marriages that I choose to ignore on the curse that is Facebook. The sad truth is that many of those people have turned their lives in directions we just can’t understand. Ten years ago we’d all imagine what we’d be doing and how we’d be living our lives in the future. Only three of us, Alex, our mate Shotty (currently hiking it up in Patagonia) and myself have stuck to those values of old. The funny thing is that we figured all our ‘grown-up’ friends probably perceive us as losers that should get a hold on responsibility, reality and get a job. At a guess I’d figure if you’re reading this you’re in our camp on life, if you’re in the convention camp then maybe it’s time to stop living vicariously through me and start living how you really want… if you want to of course.
Most people only stay at Quetzaltrekkers for the minimum three month requirement, unsurprising considering the intensity of the job. In January a large plague of new guides took over QT, a group that became mine when I started work at the end of February. We had the most amazing collection of people who worked together with energy, passion and enthusiasm to smash all previous Quetzaltrekkers financial records and cement some serious friendships. The departure of Alex and Katie coincided with the mass departure of many of these friends, some Quetzaltrekker politics and a general personal burnout. As they cycled away from the QT office I broke down in a way that defies rationality. Overnight I went from sharp and focused to all over the place and literally unable to think. Thankfully two of my closer QT friends, Ginny and Jamie remained and we decided to combine a visa run with a trip to the beach at Tilapita on the Guatemalan coast. As the sun set over the pacific and we frolicked drunkenly in the crashing waves it was clear to me that this was the full stop after what has been a special time. Physically unable to hike due to a slight injury and mentally gone, I regret that I never really fully engaged with my role in Quetzaltrekkers again.
To put things simply though, what I’ve actually been doing during the past weeks and months in the blog wilderness is ‘my job’. I’ve guided 7 groups on our three day hike over to Lago Atitlan, 6 groups up Tajumuclo, summited Santa Maria 6 times and guided folks around to a mirador overlooking Volcan Santiaguito a few times. I would have done more if it weren’t for the hamstring issue I developed playing football with EDELAC kids. Some of these groups and treks were memorable, others not so, some of my clients have been amazing and interesting people, others complete idiots. Blonde Swedes in outrageously short shorts and stubborn selfish Israeli’s have served to reinforce some of my national stereotypes while a string of it has to be said, mostly Australians, have reaffirmed my faith in the hilarity of humanity. It’s been rewarding, great fun and I regard myself as very privileged to have been awarded the opportunity. But all good things come to an end and it’s important to know when to move on.
Before I took my vacation from bloglandia, I posted about a hike some of us took up towards the crater of Volcan Santiaguito, one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world. Getting up close to the raw power of nature had a huge impact on me, seducing me in a similar vein to other great natural wonders I’ve encountered in the last two years. So close to Xela yet a complete world away in terms of appearance and environment, the volcanic otherworldliness of Santiaguito and her surrounding plot has provided me with the three most enjoyable hiking experiences of my time here. I don’t mean to demean the Quetzaltrekkers hikes as they are beautiful but at the same time they are rather placid, lacking the bite and honest adventure I crave.
The mobile hiking unit that accompanied me to the crater for the second time also included Santi (QT’s amazing longer term Guatemalteco guide), my good friend and room-mate Sarah, Liz, who hails from Michigan U.S. but has been in Xela for a few months, and Santa and Maria, two beautiful dogs who live on Volcan Santa Maria. A very different group to that of my first Santiaguito visit and accordingly a very different trip. When I first went up to the crater saddle we discovered a small sheltered volcanic beach that looked sheltered enough to pass for a decent camp spot. In my mind I christened this ‘Camp Danger’ and started to obsess about sleeping there… it became our home on this second outing. The threat of deadly gases and volcanic debris no doubt worried some of the group and the extreme proximity to the loud eruptions that happen generally every 40 minutes or so made sleeping difficult, but it was one of the most memorable experiences of my trip so far.
The single ray of light to emerge from a very wet trip up Tajumulco last weekend (my final trek as a guide with Quetzaltrekkers) was the attendance of Sarah and James, two British cycle tourists (www.big-sur.co.uk). It’s a rare thing to find other cyclists with a similar mindset to my own but in these guys I’ve found just that. Not only are they English but also have great senses of humor, almost a year on the bike behind them from Alaska and they both ride Thorn’s. I’m excited to ride with them.
So how did I celebrate my last weekend in Xela? I went and climbed Santiaguito of course. After the disappointing wash-out that was Sarah and James’ hike up Tajumulco, I figured they deserved a treat. So James joined me and Jamie, the last of my friends left in Xela (now back in the U.S.) on my favorite hike. The day before we went Santiaguito was raining ash down on Xela and reports were of unusually high volcanic activity. These thoughts were compounded by a huge eruption that we heard but couldn’t see on the first big descent of the route. Activity turned out to be pretty steady but still we returned yesterday from a Santiaguito that looks incredibly different to the one I first encountered: The rainy season has turned the area from blanket grey to actually quite green. Things feel different underfoot, the volcanic dust has been tamed and the crater has blasted itself into a different shape. It’s also now necessary to hike out early as rain makes large stretches of the route extremely dangerous. With the unpredictability of recent eruptions in mind, this visit we camped in a safer spot just up from the fourth volcanic beach. After sitting out the rainy season’s afternoon onslaught we rose just after 3 a.m., hiked up to the crater and got one impressive pre-dawn eruption up close and personal. Everything about this farewell trip went well and it proved a fitting goodbye to Jamie, Xela and her surrounding volcanoes.