December 12, 2006

Antigua, Guatemala

Doug and I continue our trek North. It has been mostly rainy and overcast for the better part of two weeks now. Cooler than the weather we had when we were on the coast. We´ll be ready for some sun and warm temps when we get back towards Mexico.

We did cross from Honduras to Guatemala and had a most interesting border crossing experience. We arrived on a Sunday, which in some countries can be problematic. Guatemala is one of those countries. Not because of any religious beliefs, but because the bank is closed. Guatemala seems to have the most steps in order to get into their country. Most of which don´t make any sense. One of them is that you pay so much money to immigration for your vehicle permit, but then you need to pay the rest at the bank, get a stamp and go back to immigration to get your final stamp. Well, fortunately we were at a very small border crossing. And this is the first time we had a woman helping us. She was very motherly towards us and explained to us in meticulous Spanish that we would be going nowhere until the next day because the bank was closed and that was a problem for us. None of that did we really understand, and after about an hour of trying to figure things out, she started processing our passports and paperwork. We didn´t really figure out what went on until much later, after we had left the border. This woman took us under wing and did all our paperwork, gathered all our money, got all our stamps, and made a file for us. So she herself could complete the necessary transactions on Monday when the banks opened. In the end, we left and that was that. We didn´t have to stay around at all. I think it helped that we were the only ones there and that it was raining. She was the best.

It continues to be amazing to us that each time we enter a new country how each one has its own unique feel and flavor. It felt good to be back in Guatemala, but we certainly noticed the driving conditions deteriorate quickly. As before, there are no real road rules in Guatemala, or none that anyone pays attention to. We had a great ride through curvy mountain roads. Oddly, they were doing a lot of construction on the roads on these particular mountain passes. As a result, traffic was stopped and backed up, literally for miles. However, since there are no rules here, we had a great time weaving through all the stopped cars and trucks to get to the very front of the line. We saved hours and hours by doing this. The best part is, it is totally acceptable and accepted. Even better yet, most times, when we got to the front of the line, the flag guy would wave us through. We were then expected to fend for ourselves as we found our way through dump trucks and heavy equipment. It was really quite amazing, and Doug and I both wished it worked like this in the States.

The other amazing thing about these construction zones... they have armed police types making sure no traffic gets through. In several spots they even had boards with nails in the middle of the road, so if anyone tried to pass, they would have flat tires. This only tells me that they had some impatient people that tried to bust the line in the past. A big gun at the beginning of the line is a pretty good deterrent I guess. Literally the wait would be hours, as the lines went on for miles. BMW's motorcycles are exempt.

At one construction zone, we had to stop, because a piece of equipment was excavating a new road up a cliff above the existing road. Instead of hauling the dirt and rock down the hill, they were just dumping it right onto the existing road. They´d do that for a half hour or so, and then clear the road and let traffic through. It´s a no wonder they have so many potholes in Guatemala.

Enroute to Guatemala City we did get stopped by some military police. It was unclear to me WHY we got stopped, because we were not speeding, much less doing anything wrong. We flat out refused to give any original documentation, and the boys with guns were not real happy about this. I kept trying to ask them what the problem was. They would just laugh at me... for some reason. In the end, they let us go, I think mostly because we weren´t cooperating with them and they didn´t know what else to do. We didn´t figure out until later that what I was really saying to them was... what´s YOUR problem. No wonder, with guns in hand, they were laughing at this gringo on a motorcycle. At least we got out of there.

I am constantly amazed by the changing landscape. We drove a mountain pass today that topped out at just under 10,000 feet! Passing through some amazing pine forests, it was a ride to remember. And on this road in several places, we had the closest calls that we´ve had on the road to date. Near head on collisions. The first was due to a bus passing a row of traffic, on an uphill, on a blind corner, just as we happen to be coming around the corner. Amazingly the driver didn´t even slow down or seem to notice us. I was leading and just barely able to get out of the way and get the bike onto the narrow shoulder. Doug, right behind me, fortunately, was paying attention, and got out of the way as well, without hitting me. Fortunately there was a shoulder. On most roads there is none. Had there not been one, we would have been doomed.

Shortly thereafter, we caught another bus on a corner doing the same thing. Fortunately I had some breathing room this time and made this driver very aware that he WAS indeed in our lane and I wasn´t happy about it. In some of these countries they call these souped up school buses, RED DEVIL BUSES and some places just call them chicken buses. Either way, they are from hell. They spew out fogs of exhaust and drive as fast as they can, and ignore anything else on the road. They can be a bit troublesome. They are easily spotted though, as they are all painted wild colors and have crazy names and sayings airbrushed all over them. Several other times that day we narrowly avoided head on collisions. We´ll be glad when we get out of Guatemala alive.

We managed to get through Guatemala City without incident, and we only got lost once. It's and amazing place, and a place I hope to never return to. There are so many people there, and traffic, and pollution... it's unreal. It's chaos at it´s best, and you literally can wash grime off your skin at the end of the day from all the pollution in the air. It´s a big, scary, dirty place.

We are spending the night in Antigua. This is an ancient, charming colonial town. Fairly large, but very quaint and unique, chock full of cobblestone streets. The cathedrals here are absolutely amazing. Many of them are built around the ruins of earlier cathedrals that were destroyed in war or natural disaster. As Christmas draws close, it is really great to experience these places, as there are many celebrations leading up to Christmas and a lot of decorations and lights. However it's much more subtle than in the States. The hotel we are staying in let us park our bikes in the lobby, right next to the Christmas tree. Amazing.

That's all for this time. Next update, we should be into Mexico.