August 31 to September 17- Red, White and Green

Although our original plans had us biking up to Mexico City (even potentially to the Mexico-U.S. border), current events can shift comfort levels, and plans can change. To err on the side of safety, we decide to stay an extra week in Guatemala and bus through Mexico from the border up. But let’s face it—we have all fallen helplessly in love with Guatemala and none of us are too disappointed about prolonging the end of our tryst.

 

Guatemalan country road

Tuesday morning we shuttle up a long, steep grade to Nebaj. The incline is daunting to say the least, and Alyssa’s bike is also in no shape to make the journey.

We arrive in the city, only to be swarmed by a group of unremitting street-smart boys who are determined to help load panniers onto bikes. Several even offer to polish our flip flops and Chacos with their shoe-shining kits. Their zealous attempts to help are both sad and irresistible. We’re cautious to reward their generosity, our minds burdened with the nagging thought that their helpfulness might be disingenuous. The boys know their math:  cute smiles + faces smudged with shoe polish + offering help = money/food from the gringas. Their charming persistence wins out in the end, and we allow them to escort us to the bike repair shop. We soon realize that two of the boys are in cahoots with a plan to outlast the others while repairs are made on Alyssa’s bike. Vigilant, they stick it out to the end, and ultimately, we offer to take these two out to lunch. While supping on some steaming beef soup, we ask questions about their lives. Are they orphans? Where do they live? Do they go to school? Why are they working on the street? Soon, we realize that their stories don’t add up, and sadly, we can’t separate truth from reality. Although our questions aren’t clearly answered, the boys remain as cute as can be. We part ways feeling a strange uneasiness, shrugging off the uncomfortable reality that our meal ticket could not solve the larger problem at hand.

Next item on our list of things to do: exterminate the FLEAS. According to certain sources, Guatemala has a flea problem, and to our chagrin, we’ve been experiencing it firsthand. To mitigate the issue, we haul our clothes to a laundromat and pray that the clothes we’re wearing (the ones that aren’t being washed) aren’t hosting a fleet of fleas plotting a counterattack. Thankfully, our strategy works, and, in a few days, we’re flea-free.

Wednesday we devote most of the day to bike maintenance…without Logan. Alyssa buys a replacement tire for her shredded one and executes a quick-fix repair job on her brake handle. The others tweak and tease their gears into alignment. After a day full of cursing, learning, trial and error, we come out of it with better bikes, a heightened sense of expertise, and clothes covered in bike grease.

Women of the weaving cooperative

The following morning we ride about 16 kilometers to the highland town of San Juan Cotzal, to visit a women’s weaving cooperative that uses natural dyes. The intensity of the hues is so astounding, we almost find it hard to believe these colors are rendered from natural resources like avocados, oranges, coffee, insects, and berries. We are impressed by the cooperative’s ability to start small, without the help of loans, and to continue to grow slowly into a successful business, which empowers widowed women to earn a living by making products they’re proud of.

Beautiful textiles calling our names

We fall in love with more of the textiles than we can afford, but support the cooperative by buying what we can. Panniers stuffed with unique, beautiful souvenirs, we take a bus back to Nebaj and then to a crossroads where we hop back on our bikes and ride to the town of Cunén to stay the night.

In the morning we cycle a hilly, exhausting 20 kilometers to Uspantán where we eat lunch. We plan to cycle the rest of the way to Cobán, but are told that the road has been wiped out in numerous places by massive landslides and making our way by bike would be a long, muddy, tedious slog. So, we board yet another bus and wind our way through truly awe-inducing landslide territory. Whole sides of mountains have been carved out by the devastating effects of rain and gravity.

 

Cardamom pods

From the city of Santa Cruz, it’s a pleasant 13  kilometers to Cobán, where the acres and acres of cardamom farms have infused the air with the thick scent of spice. We dine at a more upscale restaurant for dinner, and delight in a warm, spicy ancient Mayan chocolate drink. Kate braves an order of chile rellenos, which we all take turns sampling. The heat is intense, burning like the fire of a thousand red ants, both going in and, eventually, exiting our digestive systems.

Onward ho!

Saturday morning we enjoy a lovely 62 kilometer ride from Cobán to the gravel road turn-off for the town of Lanquin. We breeze by pine-covered hillsides and expansive vistas of rolling hills and deep valleys. Not even a kilometer down the gravel road to Lanquin, we decide that when the going gets tough, we get on a truck. We flag a flatbed and pile our bikes precariously in the back. After a car-to-car transfer, we reach our hostel for the night, managed by a group of young, Guatemalan guys who are more than happy to host a group of young American women for the night. We order up a round of dulce cariños (tequila, honey and lime), and play a cutthroat round of the card game Spoons. After a brutal battle playing by the rules of “anything goes,” Alyssa’s reaction time is just a split-second too slow and she loses the game, much to the delight of Devon, who, by everyone’s bets was doomed from the beginning. As punishment, Alyssa must, of course, endure a bit of public humiliation and perform Michael Jackson’s moon dance to the incongruous rhythm of Reggaeton from designated Point A to designated Point B. After a good laugh, we hit the hay.

We wake the next morning to discover that our bread and other foodstuffs have been ravaged by a small band of night-prowling cats. Furious at these felines, we stomp around and assess the damage. Although terribly offended, we try to let it go.

Semuc Champey

We subsequently seize the day by strolling down to Semuc Champey, a beautiful natural phenomenon—a massive limestone bridge under which the Cahabón River surges. A terraced succession of aquamarine pools cascade down the limestone, which forms an idyllic swimming spot. We splash around in the turquoise water, and of course, take action-jumping photos and choreograph an impressive synchronized swimming routine. Sadly, our time spent here is much too short, as we must return to the hostel to catch our bus back to Cobán.

 

Our best superhero jumps

It’s time to backtrack. We observe the speed rewind of the terrain we’ve crossed over the past week. We spend the night in Cobán and rise the next morning to hop on another bus back to Uspantán. We make a bus transfer in Uspantán and make it almost to Sacapulas before we are stopped by the recent aftermath of a landslide. We learn, to our dismay, that the earth had unleashed its wrath on the road only a half hour before our arrival to the scene. We gaze up at the naked hillside, with still more mud oozing down and sporadic rock falls. It’s obvious that people aren’t quite sure what to do about the situation. A work crew has arrived to shovel a path across the highway. But, no one is shoveling. Some people are tiptoeing across the debris to reach the other side, taking their chances with fate and gravity. Some motorcycles and 4-wheel vehicles make the passage, after getting stuck several times in the mud and goo. We watch nervously and impatiently as the scene unfolds, unsure as to what the next best step will be. Suddenly, we hear the deep rumbling of earth loosening its grasp on the surrounding flora, and a chunk of land comes cascading down to the highway. To be safe, we dash further up the road.

We decide it would be a stupid move to lug our bikes through the aftermath, as we would be slower-moving potential targets. A few hours pass, and when we see trucks and buses begin making the passage, we transfer our stuff from one bus to another and hope for dear life that the stars have aligned for our safety. Holding our breath, the bus slurps and stumbles through the thick ooze, and before long, we reach the other side! Back in Sacapulas, we change buses and zoom the rest of the way (incident free) to Huehuetenango to stay the night.

Around three in the morning, Devon wakes to a bout of intense vomiting. Alyssa follows suit about 10 minutes later, with strikingly similar symptoms. The night proceeds for the two of them in a miserable blur of uneasy sleep and a lot of bathroom time. Sadly, the next morning the two of them must stay behind in Huehuetenango to rest and recuperate while Kate and Melissa bike the final leg of the Cycles of Change tour.

 

Melissa gives the Mexican Border a thumbs up

After parting ways with the poor invalids, Kate and Melissa fly down the valley road from Huehuetenango towards the Mexican border. Eighty-six kilometers later, they reach the border town of La Mesilla and jump on a bus to safely head north to San Cristobal de Las Casas from there. Upon arriving in the city, they are struck by the beauty and inviting feel of this metropolitan hub, replete with sidewalk cafes, artisan crafts, organic food and a parliament building illuminated with the colors of the Mexican flag: red, white and green.

It’s a happy reunion when they stumble into Jim on their way to the hostel. Jim is a friend and fellow former Peace Corps volunteer from Panama who plans to spend the next week hanging out with us in Mexico. Kate, Melissa and Jim celebrate with a long awaited meal of chicken mole, tortilla chips, guacamole and beer.

Meanwhile…

Bedridden and bathroom-dependent, Alyssa and Devon spend the majority of the day at the hotel, that is, until Devon decides it’s time to eat. She and Alyssa make their slow, beleaguered way to the bakery. As soon as Devon sits town with a cup of tea in hand, she blacks out. When she comes to, she admits that it’s time to visit the hospital. Alyssa and a bakery employee assist Devon to a nearby clinic, where she’ll spend the next 20 hours hooked up to an IV, getting treatment for a bad case of salmonella and amoebas, subsisting on white bread and purple Jell-O.

Meanwhile in San Cristobal…

 

San Cristobal all decked out

Friday calls for an even greater celebration: Melissa’s birthday! Kate, Jim and Melissa walk the streets, visiting markets, and feasting their eyes on all the delicacies. They devour a delightful brunch at La Casa de Pan, an organic vegetarian restaurant that sources food from local farms.

 

Spices at the market

An adjacent store sells everything a sustainable foodie could dream of: chocolate, coffee, whole bread rolls and pastries, teas, and spices.  For dinner they eat tacos from a street vendor.

A day well spent, they finally return to the hostel to wait for Devon and Alyssa, where they play a few rounds of cards and drink the new favorite Cycles of Change drink, dulce cariños.  They wait patiently, telling themselves they cannot eat any of the delicious birthday cakes they bought at the specialty French bakery and cake shop.

Meanwhile, Devon and Alyssa have been trying to wrap things up at the hospital and Devon asks the nurse to increase the flow rate of the IV so they can make it to the Mexican border before dark. After processing the necessary paperwork, taking showers, and making runs to the pharmacy, Alyssa and Devon make a hectic exit out of Huehuetenango, on a bus bound for La Mesilla. Still wading through the post-illness haze, it takes a minute for Devon and Alyssa to realize that the bus has stopped. In Mesilla? They’re not sure. So Devon turns to the man behind her and asks, “Este pueblo, es Mesilla?” (Is this town Mesilla?) The man responds by saying, “I no speak English.” Devon stares at him for a moment, perplexed, slowly processing the interaction. She shrugs it off and asks a different man, who promptly replies, “Sí.”

Alyssa and Devon cross the border and bike a lovely four kilometers through dramatic Mexican scenery. They reach the immigration office by dusk and after a rather hasty and stressful money exchange, they board an expensive (but safe) shuttle bound for Comitán. They transfer shuttles again in Comitán and arrive in San Cristobal around midnight, just in time to wish Melissa a happy birthday before the day has passed completely by. They savor a sampling of decadent desserts and rejoice in being reunited again.

 

Happy Birthday Melissa!!!

The next morning, while Devon takes it easy, the rest of the crew ventures out on a cycling adventure through the more rural outskirts of the city. The ride is lovely and our guide fills us in on the history of the area, in addition to imparting interesting tidbits about Mayan medicinals.

Devon joins us for the afternoon at the Mayan medicine museum, where we learn about ancient traditional healing practices, many of which, to our dismay, involve Coca Cola. For dinner, we enjoy a round of soup at the organic restaurant and end the night with a movie. The documentary features a historic account of the Zapatista movement. By the end of the film, the bandana-clad image takes on a whole new meaning—one which symbolizes the indigenous peoples’ struggle for equal rights and respect.

The next day, Kate, Melissa, Devon and Jim visit a women’s weaving cooperative to admire the Mexican-style dyes and patterns. In Mexican weaving tradition, when a girl is born the family plants the placenta with a seed and the tree grows with the child. The girl learns about weaving from the tree, and about magic and stories from the roots and branches. On a woven textile, the vertical lines represent the umbilical cords that unite the magic of nature with the magic of the girl, which is a sacred cycle. Along the horizontal lines, she tells the story of her life in pictographic form. Through this practice, weaving becomes her way of learning about and teaching about the world.

After Alyssa miraculously reclaims a lost pannier she left on the night shuttle bound for San Cristobal, she and Jim visit a Mayan pharmacy, stocked with all sorts of herbal medicinal remedies. In the evening, we bid San Cristobal farewell and board the overnight bus for Oaxaca.

Saturday morning we wake up to a southern Mexican sunrise. We are in Tequila Land. The bus speeds by acres and acres of agave plants, the source of both agave nectar and tequila. Soon, the scenery transitions from vast stretches of cacti to a more urban flavor. We reach Oaxaca semi-rested and hungry for Oaxacan cuisine. We soon happen upon food vendors in a park, and delight in squash blossom quesadillas for breakfast. For lunch, our hostel arranges for the guests to explore the nearby market to buy fresh ingredients for guacamole, salsa, mixed drinks, grilled vegetables and meat seasoned with Mexican spices. Not only is the food delicious, but bonding with our fellow foreign travelers is a fun way to experience the city.

 

Dried fish or crickets anyone?

With only one day to enjoy the sights and tastes of Oaxaca, we decide to seize the remainder of the afternoon. Jim and Alyssa explore the Botanical Museum while Devon, Kate and Melissa wind their way through the streets and cruise through the Zócalo, the main city square. For dinner, Kate, Jim and Devon savor plates of tender chicken surrounded by a sea of rich, dark, spicy mole. As we dine, we ignore an onslaught of spoon-and-comb-and-bookmark vendors. We have become masters at the art of ignoring these women.  Throughout the day, we have found ourselves confronted by aggressive saleswomen waving spoons, combs and bookmarks in our faces—things we really don’t need, and thus feel all the more guilty somehow when we refuse to buy them, time after time after time after time. Although we feel mildly heartless, ignoring them has become our only successful tactic to avoid their plaintive stares.

Sunday morning we leave Oaxaca on a bus bound for Mexico City. As we begin entering the outskirts of the largest city in the world, graffiti becomes increasingly more prevalent. Political and anti-oppression sentiments are as numerous as gang tags. We look out the windows of the bus at the sweeping expanse of this mammoth-sized city. Here we are in Mexico City, heart of the land of famous revolutionaries, writers, drug lords, artists, political activists, and musicians. This city is positively pulsing with life. It’s as if you can feel it has something to say.

And the something it says upon our arrival is: “Let’s party!” After squeezing ourselves and our bikes into and out of the subway, we emerge from the Metro tunnels into a country-wide birthday party for Madame Mexico herself. She’s turning 200 this year, and we’ve made it just in time to join the shindig.

 

Celebration time!

The main thoroughfare of the city has been cordoned off as pedestrian-only, so we merrily join the throngs of people moving down the middle of the street. The natural migration leads us to the Zócalo, where we behold the beginnings of the week-long bicentennial celebration. Mexican cultural designs of tinsel and lights festoon the buildings surrounding the square. Nearly everyone is sporting some sort of Mexican pride paraphernalia in red, white and green: sombreros, wigs, mohawks, fake eyelashes, dresses, headbands, face paint, and crowns.

We find a hostel near the main festivities and then attempt to find food, which is a more difficult task than one would presume. One might think that with so many people who are bound to be hungry, there would be street vendors aplenty. Not so, warn the policemen, who patrol up and down the streets looking for someone to even try selling food to a hungry partygoer. No license to sell, no sale. Despite the authorities’ best efforts to thwart our plans to find street food, we soon spy people eating giant hard shell tacos piled with cactus, cilantro and cheese. We follow the taco train back to its source, which happens to be a clandestine operation headed by a woman with a canvas bag full of the necessary ingredients. Her right-hand man stands by her side, watching for any signs of police intervention. When he spies a cop car he signals to the woman, who then hastily bags up her food and starts walking, posing as just another innocent, foodless pedestrian. We surreptitiously snag our Black Market food and make our way back to the Zócalo where we join hundreds of people waiting for the opening light ceremony.

Word on the street is that the lights will turn on at 8 p.m. But, 8 p.m. comes and passes and still no lights. After what seems like an eternally long and chilly wait, a stream of blue lights shoots up toward the sky. The color fades from blue to purple, to red, to green. While all of this is mildly exciting, we decide to forego the rest of the visual wonders to brave our way slowly back to our hostel, through crowds of people pressed so tightly together we begin to envy the spacious confines of a sardine can.

 

Prepping for the celebration

The next morning we begin our exploration of the city. We are amazed by the thousands of men and women in the police force walking the streets, training for the big bash. The government has issued 14,000 police officers to guard the bicentennial celebration, using snipers on rooftops and metal detectors at all the entrances. Mexico City is taking no chances for breaches in security.

The candy market

We venture to a market to beat all markets. We wander through the candy aisles, a flurry of bees buzzing around us, attracted to the mounds of bars, blocks, pies, and balls of Mexican candy.

 

Mmmm Mole

Next, we peruse the section of the market where mountains of mole are piled high in varying shades of black, brown, rusty red and olive green. After filling plastic bags full of mole, Jaimaca tea blossoms, and blood red dried chiles, we eat lunch under the fluorescent lighting of a market restaurant. Alyssa and Devon decide to tease their taste buds with a Huitlacoche quesadilla. Huitlacoche, or the “Mexican truffle,” is a black mushroom that grows on corn that earned the name of “filth of the raven” in pre-colonial Mexico. The smooth taste, texture, and aroma of this delicacy resemble a cross between a portobello and a shitake.

Fungi galore

For Melissa’s last night in Mexico, we travel to the more upscale part of the city to celebrate our journey together. We choose Italian and sip glasses of red wine while beggars pass us by, pleading for milk for their child or other necessities that shame us and our perfect gourmet pizzas.

In the morning, we are down to four, after Melissa climbs into her airport-bound taxi. Again, tears and hugs all around. We miss you, Mama Frita!

Alyssa and Kate spend the day wandering around the city, disappointed by all the museums that have inconveniently closed this week. In the evening we venture to Plaza Garibaldi, famous for its live mariachi bands scattered around the square. We stroll through the scene, marveling at the flashy, sequined sombreros, jackets and pants, Three Amigos style. Couples sway, holding each other and dancing in the middle of these bands, lost in the serenade.

We dine at a restaurant known for its traditional food, great drinks, and mariachi bands that make their rounds from table to table, offering a song for 80 pesos. Jim buys us a song and we smile and sway to the rhythm of “Guantanamera,” which happens to be a patriotic Cuban song.

Following dinner, just as we reach our hostel, we turn around to the sound of shouts, the squealing of wheels on pavement, and pounding footsteps. The police have found the food vendors! In a rush of panic, food vendors grab their carts and wheel them frantically down the street while policemen follow, hot on their heels. The whole scene is dramatically surreal in a comically action-packed movie sort of way.

After a memorable night of good food, great music and an epic chase, Jim leaves around dawn for his flight and we are down to three. Glad you could join us, Jim!

Wednesday morning we visit the Frida Kahlo museum, which is appropriately located in the cobalt blue house where the Mexican painter was born and ultimately lived out her days married to muralist Diego Rivera. The entrance to “Casa Azul,” or the “Blue House,” leads into an open-air courtyard, the house wrapping around it in a natural flow, well-designed with big windows and tall ceilings. Several rooms of the house have been converted into a gallery of her art, including pieces of her early works, unfinished portraits and some of Diego’s landscapes. The rest of the house has been restored and preserved in its mostly original state, displaying the couples’ art supplies, poetry books, political paraphernalia, cookware, and clothing.

The photos, paintings, literature and other memorabilia from Frida’s life speak volumes about the couple’s passionately tense marriage, their politically charged bohemian lifestyle, and her tormented identity as an artist and the mother she physiologically could never be. Although her work is often considered flat, folkloric and characterized as Naïve art, her vivid colors and evocative images are all her own and intensely powerful.

The girls at the Frida Museum

For lunch we happen upon the most exciting taco stand yet—you choose con carne or vegetariano and they hand you soft tacos to fill with an unprecedented variety of veggies, picante condiments and beans. To quell the heat, we gulp down papaya and banana licuados (smoothies) for dessert.

For the rest of the afternoon we lie low before the Big Night—the bicentennial celebration show. After dark descends, we make our way down to the entrance of the festivities, only to find that the police guards are selectively letting people through. Clusters of swat team members have formed human barricades at all the street entrances to the central square.

 

Swat team gear and all

They have to prevent the overflow of people somehow, and as a result, thousands of expectant Mexicans are crowding just outside of the Zócalo, angry and disappointed to be missing the biggest city show in 200 years. As luck would have it, our hotel is located just inside the perimeter of the blockade and we are waved through both checkpoints. Although the security guards won’t let us bring our water bottles in, Devon somehow gets away with smuggling in a bottle of pepper spray—the only item in her purse.  Guilt rushes through us as we pass easily through the gates, looking over our shoulder at all the agitated faces of Mexicans who should be given priority seating for the show, but instead are forced to remain just outside the party.

 

Ready to celebrate

Too far away from the main stage to make out the tiny figures dancing across it, we rely on the big screens positioned around the square to watch the show. First, a trio of mariachi singers colored head-to-toe in red, white and green perform a dramatic ballad.

The act is cute, but a tad amateur and campy given that the government has spent $230 million on this celebration. The next act is even worse. Cheerleaders bounce and bob around the stage, trying to rally the audience members to get up and dance with them—a 10-step choreographed routine. Four steps may have been reasonable. But asking any more than that is one more step towards inciting a riot. By the time the cheerleaders get around to the seventh move, the audience loses patience and begins to boo the girls off stage. The general malcontent is fomented by the fact that many Mexicans believe the $230 million could have been used in more beneficial ways, like funding important public services for a country that is staggering to get back on two feet.

From behind Devon hears a couple of young Mexican guys heave huge sighs over the sorry state of the performance. One of them says, İAy! İQue aburrido esta fiesta!” or, “This party is so boring!”  Devon looks back and laughs with them, making eye contact with the loud kvetcher. He looks at her in surprise and says, “Tu hablas español?” To which she says, “Sí.” Suddenly, we have found ourselves some people with which to commiserate. The speaker’s name is Leo and the other guy is Miguel.

Soon, we realize we’re hungry. The problem: the police have laid siege on the city square. Although we see restaurants, paltry as they may be (McDonald’s and the like), a mere 50 feet away, we can’t gain access, as our passage has been blocked off by fences and a wall of policemen. While we have the option of leaving the area, there’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to breeze through security to get back in.

 

The crowded Zocolo

We watch the parade for a while, which is impressive. Fancy floats, creative costumes and a giant blow-up centipede thing pass us by.

 

An aerial dancer above the crowd

Face in the parade

But soon, however, we realize that simply the idea of food being just outside our reach is magnifying our hunger. Leo and Miguel persuade us to follow them out to grab a bite to eat. In a stroke of irony, we feast on burgers and American-style nachos on the most patriotic Mexican day of the year. We watch overhead TV as the aerial dancers spell “Mexico” on a vertical dance floor, not too disappointed by the fact that we could be watching the live show just a block away. But when gigantic flames start issuing from the presidential palace, we bolt out of the restaurant to make it back to the Zócalo in time to see what resembles a revolutionary uproar or a smoldering coup d’état. Alas, we make it through security and back to the finale just as the flames are fizzling out. To our delight, however, we learn that the show isn’t over. Before long, fireworks are flying from the top and sides of the cathedral located right next to our vantage point. The charred firework shells rain onto our heads and upturned faces. But the display is phenomenal. The pyrotechnics make it all worth it. The wait, the disappointment, the hunger. We would go through all of it again just to see the cathedral, the square, and the thousands of onlookers lit up with dazzling flashes of red, white and green.

The Cathedral with 8 tons of fireworks

The celebration

 

Through the smoke

After the last firework fades into smoke, we leave the square feeling elated with Mexican pride. We wander the streets with Miguel and Leo, following the natural flow of people through the city. It feels as if we’re walking through a dream land. Confetti flies through the air, along with showers of shaving cream. A multitude of people decked out in Mexican pride paraphernalia stroll along smiling. Cotton candy vendors shoot tufts of sugary fluff into the air with their cotton candy spinning machines. In Willy Wonka-like wonder, we pluck the pink stuff out of the air as we walk.

Soon, we reach the first of the five mega concerts staged across the city. We walk from concert to concert, enjoying the range of Mexican musical tastes, from rock to ranchero. We station ourselves at the last concert, where we weave through the crowd to get up close to the stage. After the last song, we make our way back to the center of the city, stopping and sitting at the various chair-art installations lining the main street. A night filled with fun and new friends, we promise to see Miguel and Leo again before we leave the country.

Thursday morning Alyssa and Kate attend the bicentennial military show, which is essentially a heaping overdose of militaristic madness. The central square is a sea of uniforms as troops parade through while fighter jets rip through the air overhead. That’s basically the gist of the show: lots and lots of armed forces people doing armed forces things wearing armed forces clothes.

 

Pretty intense parade

In the afternoon, we begin the half-sad/half-exciting process of disassembling our bikes for their impending confinement within the strict box size flight regulations.

Friday is a special day, not only because it’s the day before we fly back to the states, but more importantly because it’s Kate’s birthday! We postpone the celebration till evening, scrambling around the city and our hostel to secure three bike boxes, pack up our belongings, finish up the second-to-last blog post, and do all those last-minute chores where you underestimate the time it will take to do them.

By dinner, we are exhausted, but ready to give Kate the birthday bash she deserves. We meet Leo and Miguel in the middle of the Zócalo. From there, we walk to a restaurant that allegedly serves authentic, pre-colonial dishes. We excitedly entertain the idea of trying mezcal con gusano, or the type of tequila that hosts a worm at the bottom of the bottle. But, we arrive at the restaurant only to discover that they are no longer serving. With shattered dreams of wormy tequila, we slump out of the restaurant and take an unbearably long taxi ride back to the vicinity of our hostel. We laugh at the realization that we would have halved our time had we just walked. The next restaurant we consider is more upscale and seems to fit the bill for a suitable birthday venue. While we wait for our party to be seated, we wander to a nearby cathedral, where we sit in the pews and are overcome by fits of giggles brought about by the all-too silent sacred space. We politely excuse ourselves and get back to the restaurant in time to be seated.

 

The church giggles

Our dinner is one to remember, with delicious food, a lovely ambience, and live music. For dessert, Leo and Miguel surprise Kate with a slice of cheesecake and a restaurant round of “Feliz cumpleaños” or “Happy Birthday.”

 

The birthday dinner

After leaving the restaurant, Leo and Miguel give us a whirlwind tour of the city, like they promised. Leo astounds us all with his mastery of the English language, firing off jokes with all the timing and wit of a standup comedian. Miguel’s more subdued and quiet demeanor is charming when paired with his chivalrous way of ushering us around the city. We lounge at trendy bar in a more upscale section of the city. We drink and talk, our voices competing with the live band in the next room.

After some celebratory wine, we make our way back to the Zócalo, where Miguel and Leo show us one more sight: an elaborate ceiling of stained glass. We crane our necks to take in the splendor of the design. We snap group photos in a vain attempt to capture the memory of our final night in Mexico.

Saddled with sadness, we wander back to the hostel, where we bid farewell to our two new, wonderful friends. We miss you Leo and Miguel! Your humor, generosity, and gracious tour of the city left a sweet aftertaste at the end of our long journey. If you ever make it to the Pacific Northwest, we would love to show you around.

The morning is a blur of grogginess, carrying bike boxes down four flights of stairs, arguing with the shuttle driver about the cost of the ride, and standing in a long line at the airport ticket counter. The airport’s computer system is malfunctioning, and thus, the process takes about three times as long as it should. In addition to the unfortunately long wait, Alyssa must pay an extra $100 overweight shipment fee for her bike. Finally, after a more stressful morning than we are prepared for, we board our flight bound for Los Angeles.

 

About to move the fastest we have been in months, through the air

In L.A., Devon and Alyssa must say goodbye to Kate, the ringleader and longest-hauler of the trip. Alyssa and Devon are planning to cycle north from L.A., while Kate is taking a connector flight to Seattle. It’s a sad moment for Cycles of Change. Because after we part ways, we are down to two. We miss you, Kate! Your family must be so happy to have you back!

And here ends the Cycles of Change Tour. Alyssa and Devon continue to have adventures, the most memorable of which include a night camping in a dog park in an upscale neighborhood, Alyssa getting sideswiped by a car in Monterrey, and meeting kind, hospitable people along the journey. Along the way they cycle through coastal fog, wine country, up and down beachside bluffs, and across scenic sections of highway. Devon parts ways with Alyssa when they reach Aptos, California. At that point, they have cycled 430 miles in seven days. Alyssa continues on to San Francisco, where she meets up with our friend Collin Stackhouse. They continue to cycle and adventure up to Crescent City, California. But by that point, Alyssa’s wrist injury from her Monterrey car accident has become so uncomfortable that they must forfeit the remainder of the journey north. Both Alyssa and Collin are now safe and sound back in the Pacific Northwest.

While the Cycles of Change Tour has now ended, Cycles of Change will continue. This will not be the final blog post, nor will this be the final tour (hopefully). Our loyal readership, please stay tuned for a concluding blog post that will consolidate our group’s reflections on the trip. Also to come: polishing up the blog and a collaborative media project headed by Peter, Devon and Kate. Although the trip is over, the journey continues!

Thank you again to those of you who have supported us along the way, whether through donations, moral support, or your loyal readership. We appreciate it all, immensely.

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August 19 to 30- Cycles of Change Goes X-treme

This is what real bike touring looks like

Following our hasty farewell with Peter in San Pedro la Laguna, we dash aboard a bus that will take us up the Steep and Curvy Road of Ill-Fated Bike Rides to a town called Santa Maria. From here, little do we know, we will begin our most formidable bike leg yet. We’ve gleaned enough reassuring information about the state of the road from Santa Maria to our destination town of San Miguel Panán that we see no better option than to take this route. Our supposedly reliable sources tell us the highway is paved. Not just one person, but multiple people tell us it’s paved. So we begin our descent down this so-called “paved” road. Even when we realize this steep downhill gravel highway is riddled with potholes, we do not reconsider our route. Even when we hit an incline so steep that we have to push our loaded bikes up a section the consistency of talus, we do not reconsider the route we have taken. At this point we’ve come too far to turn around. So, we press on.

The Fog

Soon, we are engulfed in fog. Plowing our bikes through thick walls of mist soon heightens the sense that we are wading somewhat helplessly through the middle of nowhere. Soon, we realize that at the pace we’re going—heaving our bikes up steep talus slopes—we won’t make it to our destination before dark. We resolve to hail a truck to take us the rest of the way. The problem:  we have yet to see a truck with an empty flatbed heading the right way. With no other recourse, we journey onward by foot.

This photo doesn't do the steep incline justice

We finally reach the summit, only to discover that the downhill part is entirely more difficult than the uphill. We descend down such a steep grade with such dramatic hairpin turns that we continue to walk our bikes, clutching the handlebar brakes so hard that our hands begin to ache severely from the effort. Our brake pads squealing obscenely against the rims, we awkwardly maneuver our bikes down slick and unstable stretches of road. Our obstacles include a relentlessly steep grade, rivers of mud, potholes, wet sand, sheer drop offs and 180 degree turns—all through landslide territory.

The Descent

At this point, we’re not sure which will happen first— that we’ll collapse from exhaustion, that our brake pads will wear out, or that we’ll be struck by a landslide. But before any of these scenarios has a chance to occur we hear the sweet sound of providence rumbling off in the distance. It’s as if a gospel choir has thrown up its hands and sung “Hallelujah” when we hear the reverberating rattle of a truck coming our way. We convince the driver to give us a lift, and he charges us what we believe is a hefty amount—that is, until we understand that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Five bikes and five more people added to the weight of the vehicle, we buck and barrel down some of the most precipitous sections of road any of us has ever seen. Eyes wide and jaws clenched, we pool all our collective faith to help our driver negotiate his way safely down the hillside.

Piling into the truck

Finally, after the most hair-raising, death-defying truck ride of our lives, we reach pavement again, and heave deep sighs of relief. Although we’re safe, the sad part is that many Guatemalans must face the threat of natural disasters on a daily basis. The devastating aftermath of Tropical Storm Agatha in May left Guatemala in a state of extremely high potential for landslides. The relentless rain doesn’t help the situation, and our thoughts are with those who have died in the recent landslides throughout the country.

After reaching level ground, the road winds between lofty hillsides of dense tropical forest, with patches of bright little flowers lining the road. We pass through communities that seem unsullied by the tides of tourism, where both men and women wear indigenous dress. We can’t help but chuckle at the sight of several elderly indigenous men wandering around without pants underneath their traditional skirts. Perhaps they forgot. Or maybe they were just feeling free and easy that day. Either way, we all seem to have found a soft spot for pants-less old indigenous men.

After passing through several small communities, we begin to notice evidence of a fairly dominant kite culture. Each stretch of telephone wire is festooned with the shredded, tattered ghosts of kites long tangled up.  We realize that this part of Guatemala is close enough to the coast to benefit from the maritime breeze, and the children happily take advantage of it.

Dazed and tired from an already long day, we enjoy a late lunch in Santo Tomás and take another bus to San Antonio Suchitepéquez where we stay the night. We rise early Friday morning to cycle 10 kilometers to San Miguel Panán, the location of our next nutrition charla. We ride along a gentle country road to the town and eat breakfast in the central park next to a couple agile caged spider monkeys that sadly reek of feces.

Cacao pod

At the cacao cooperative, with Janell, Kate and Melissa at the helm, the charla is a success once again. Alyssa even steps in this time to showcase her Spanish comprehension. The real treat for us, however, is learning what a significant role chocolate plays in Guatemalan culture. Whereas in previous countries cacao is primarily an export product, here in Guatemala the majority of harvested cacao remains within the country’s borders. Partially stemming from Mayan tradition and partially from the fact that Guatemalans just understand that chocolate is darn good, people here use cacao in hot drinks, pastries and in bar form. Following the charla, we sample a variety of chocolates handcrafted by Claudia—tequila, whisky, smooth dark, and milk. The tasty treats win us over and we buy some bricks, along with earrings made from dried cacao beans.

That night, we sleep over at the cooperative. Kate and Alyssa lie on sleeping pads while Melissa and Janell whip out their hammocks for the occasion. Devon absentmindedly decides to set up her tent in a flood plain outside the office. She regrets this decision around midnight when she wakes up in a puddle several inches deep, and abandons ship for the cold, hard concrete floor of the cooperative for the remainder of the night.

Pruning tutorial

The next morning yields sunshine and new spirits. Members of the cooperative guide us through a Lily’s cacao farm and we receive a tutorial on pruning the trees to find the right balance of light and shade. Red, green, gold and purple cacao pods hang above our heads and at waist level as we meander through the undergrowth, which looks more like a well-managed forest than the typical “farm” image.

Tropical Storm Agatha damage

During our time at the cooperative, we learn how the impact of Tropical Storm Agatha reached even this cacao region in southwestern Guatemala. The heavy winds and rains caused mudslides and extreme forest devastation. The most concerning damage was the cacao flowers swept away by the wind. Without pollinated flowers, the production will be low this harvest season.

Cacao flower

Interestingly enough, a mosquito pollinates the flowers. The pods then take five to six months to grow, and when the pods ripen, changing from green to pink and yellow to red, the whole family heads to the farm to harvest. They cut the pods from the trees and collect them in what resembles piles of vibrantly-colored Nerf footballs. In most of Central America, the main harvest time is from October to December, although if well maintained, farmers can continue to harvest all year long.

One advantage that these coastal cacao regions have is that the fungus Moniliophthora roreri, known commonly as monilia, has not arrived here. Monilia wreaks a terrible wrath on the cacao pods by enveloping them in brown fungus. In the later stage the fungus reproduces in the form of tiny white spores, which blow through the farm and contaminate other pods. The appearance of this fungus greatly reduces the production of quality cacao.

Inside the cacao pod

The day after cutting the pods from the trees, most farmers organize a grand work party to cut open the pods and extract the seeds or beans. The beans are covered with a deliciously sweet juicy fruit—a favorite farm treat. After all the beans have been extracted out of the shells, producers carry them in buckets or sacks toward their homes to begin the fermentation process.

Fermentation box

The beans must be fermented to prevent the seed from germinating, to produce a flavor that is less bitter, and to remove the sticky, gooey fruit coating. This takes about seven days and after the second day, the farmer must stir the cacao daily. It smells a bit like vinegar and fruity wine. Some farmers ferment beans in handmade wooden boxes, much like compost bins, while others use piles of banana leaves or plastic feed sacks. Farmers can improve cacao quality by building wooden boxes to better control the fermentation process.

Drying cacao beans

After the beans are well-fermented, they dry in the hot tropical sun. Those who don’t have clear plastic roofs on their cacao dryers must run to cover the beans when the rains come. At Lily’s farm, we learn that she uses a cement platform specifically for drying cacao, with an adjacent shed to store the cacao when it rains.

Once the beans are dried, cacao can take one of two different paths. Some cacao is sold to the cooperative and stored in the warehouse. In much of Central American, the cacao is packaged in big shipping containers to be sent to chocolate factories around the world. The cacao beans that stay behind are made into artisan chocolate. In Guatemalan markets, we see homemade chocolate for sale everywhere, mixed with sugar and cinnamon, ready to be made into hot chocolate. To make this delectable treat, the women toast the beans in big blackened kettles over fires. They then peel the shells off the beans by hand, or by using a traditional wooden pestle or rock used to break the hull of the bean. With a special flick of the wrist they use a tray to sift the shells off the beans.

Pile of cacao pods

From there, the beans are ground until they turn into a fine paste called cocoa liquor. In rural areas the beans are ground with a rolling stone or a hand-crank grinder. In more urban areas, big machine grinders send the scent of chocolate wafting through town. The cocoa liquor is then mixed with other ingredients and molded into bars to cool and solidify. Throughout Guatemala, we have been buying delicious handmade chocolates combined with incredible flavors such as mint, orange, cardamom and almonds from business-savvy cacao producers. The chocolate scene is growing here and we have been more than happy to support the market.

Around midday we set off like “a herd of speeding turtles” to bike the 22 kilometers to the city of Mazatenango. Here, we learn that a bike store in town is hosting their 13th annual Motobicitravesia, a 40-kilometer family-oriented bike and off-road vehicle race (that’s not a race) around the city. For the occasion, the bike shop is offering free repairs on bikes, so we happily take advantage. And, on pure whim, we decide to enter the race!

Kate and Devon ready for the race!

Sunday morning we don our Cycles of Change jerseys and ride to the starting line of the race, pannier-free. Over 600 people are participating in the race (that’s not a race), yet we still stick out like sore thumbs in the sea of bikes and Guatemalans. The bright neon doesn’t help. Sure enough, we are spotted. And soon, we are basking in our 15 minutes of fame. First, we are interviewed by a local TV station. We take turns introducing ourselves and briefly explain our bike tour. Devon ends by waving frantically and saying hello to her mom, although the chances of her mom flipping the remote to a local Guatemalan TV station are close to none. Next, several radio stations interview us and a couple newspaper photographers snap a shot of our team. We pose for a group photo with the beauty queen of Mazatenango, and are invited on stage to be interviewed once again.  Wearing goofy, bewildered smiles on our faces, we pose for group photo after group photo with excited dads, chubby children, and teenage boys. A kind old man named Cesar even exchanges contact information with us so he can organize a welcome party when we reach the city of Huehuetenango. In about 15 minutes we have enjoyed all the benefits of being celebrities save for kissing babies and being presented with the key to the city.

Posing with the Queen of Mazatenango

Drunk on ephemeral fame, we almost forget what we’re here for. We snap back to reality when we notice that everyone around us has mounted their bikes. It’s show time. First, the horn sounds for the off-road vehicles to start the race. Next, the bicyclists funnel their way across the starting line, wobbling from the combined effort of gaining momentum while avoiding accidents. And we’re off! Before long, we have spaced ourselves out enough to pedal with some speed down the bumpy city streets. Hundreds of people line the track cheering us on. But it doesn’t take long to learn this race isn’t meant for tour bikes. Soon, we find ourselves off our bikes, dragging them over muddy, slippery rocks ranging in size from hockey pucks to basketballs—rocks so big that even the off-road vehicles are having a difficult time. We ford through several rivers and lift our bikes onto our shoulders to hike up steep, slick slopes. While only minutes before, we were enjoying the perks of stardom, we’re quick to realize that we have now become the joke of the race. Our fellow Guatemalan racers chuckle as we clatter uneasily down rocky roads, the expressions on our faces clearly announcing our inexperience with terrain such as this.

About 10 kilometers into our 40-kilometer bike race, we realize that perhaps the reality of the situation is greater than our pride, and we pull out of the race. We slink off the route and wash our mud-spattered bikes in a roadside canal. Heads bowed in shame, we ride back into the city and treat ourselves to milkshakes and lunch.

We begin cycling the 20 kilometers to Asintal just as a torrential downpour unleashes such pounding pellets of rain that we have to squint to see through the barrage. Drenched and chilled, we reach Asintal—our final cacao cooperative for a nutrition charla on the tour—only to find out that the coordinator of the cacao promoters, Oscar, has not coordinated with the promoters to receive our nutrition charla. Bemused, we arrange alternate plans for the next few days and try to reconcile the fact that the nutrition charla at the previous cooperative had actually been our last. At our hotel, we vent our frustration during an intense session of Ab Ripper X, and then enjoy dinner and mugs of hot cocoa at the little comedor down the street.

With our guide for the day

Fueled with a hearty breakfast of eggs, black beans, and tortillas, the next morning is an early one.  Oscar has arranged for us to meet with a local cacao farmer named Felipe.  While Devon and Janell hold down the fort at the hotel, Melissa, Kate and Alyssa take off on a day of unknowns.  After meeting our guide for the day, however, all worries melt away. Felipe´s kind demeanor, easy smile, and sincere curiosity blend to make one of the best guides the Cycles of Change team has had yet.

We accompany Felipe on a local bus to his hometown of San Sebastian (or Sanse, as all the locals called it).  The road to Sanse curves past small communities, roadside cows, and hectares of a peculiar looking tree.  Dangling from each tree are small buckets.  Our token Vermontite, Melissa, asks Felipe what type of tree this is, secretly hoping that maple syrup is the mystery substance that drizzles forth.  Felipe informs us that it is actually the well known hule, or rubber tree.  Sadly, latex does not have the same effect as syrup on a buttermilk pancake.  Felipe continues to tell us that rubber plantations are located throughout the region and have expanded considerably in the past few years.  The trees can be tapped once every couple days through a simple process.  A knife is used to cut a thin layer of the tree’s outermost bark and sap flows into small canisters attached beneath each cut to collect the rubber. The sap is normally collected by female plantation workers and is then transported to the rubber processing plants. The latex gathered from the trees was traditionally used by the Mesoamericans as a source of rubber, most notably to make balls for the Mayan Ball Game, or the “Rebirth in the Court of Life and Death.”  The processing plants can be identified by smell long before they are seen.  The horrible stench, comparable to a mix between feline urine and dirty gym socks, is impossible to miss.  However, it is a relatively sustainable forestry system, and we quickly learn to welcome the putrid stench when it wafts our way.

Chufle

Upon arriving in San Sebastian, we receive a guided tour of the town’s bustling market.  With a celebrity-like status, Felipe leads us skillfully through the market from one vendor to the next.  Like a well-seasoned coach selecting his best players, he knows just the vendors to share with the three starry-eyed market goers.  The woman with the long braided hair seated to the right of the meat section sells the highest quality chufle (a small green vegetable best described as a cross between an artichoke and a baby corn, used primarily in soups).  The mother-and-daughter team of tostada maker extraordinaires use the freshest tortillas.  The crispiest apples are to the left.  The kindest lime seller near the rear.  Felipe soon motions us to stop under a blue awning.   Here, his cousin and her fellow lady friends dressed in traditional attire are surrounded by heaping piles of fragrant pineapples.  “The sweetest of the sweet and juiciest of the juicy,” they inform us.  We spend the next half hour munching on freshly cut pineapple slices, and swapping words and phrases back and forth between the pineapple women.  We stumble over the guttural vowels and light clicking of their indigenous language, K’iche’, and the women giggle and blush as they try out their English on us.  Their English far surpasses our sorrowful attempts at their intricately beautiful vernacular.  If any of our readers decide to travel to the Retalhuleu region of Guatemala and desire to buy a sweet pineapple using some everyday greetings, here are a few vocabulary words for you to memorize for the occasion (note: flash cards will probably be both helpful and necessary).

sach-ar-rik: good morning
bear-ich: good day
soma-ak-cha: how are you
sha-ti-ja-a- gua: you eat
utz: yes
mant-i-oche: thank you
matz-a-tik: pineapple
alah-rah-rik: goodbye
khap-la-hoo: sweet
chaum: acidic

Pineapples galore!

After the market, we meet up with Felipe’s brother-in-law, Guillermo.  Guillermo is a cacao farmer and has offered to let us visit his land.  We pile into the back of an old pickup, which rolls to a stop at the end of a gravel road settled smack dab in the middle of a cacao forest.  As Melissa, Kate, and Alyssa hop out of the truck, Melissa points to a small opening in the understory.  Hobbit-sized seventy-something-year-old men with hunched shoulders, boots up past their knees, and wrinkles drooping over their eyes emerge from the depths of the mango and cacao forest.  Felipe introduces us to the forest dwellers, who, we quickly discover, are farmers who have been farming this land for the past 50 to 60 years.

Guillermo's farm

Like many of the cacao farms we have seen previously, Guillermo’s farm is an example of a diverse agroforestry system.  Dispersed carefully among freely growing cacao trees are a myriad of species including mango, the upper-story guerrmo trees providing the cacao´s needed shade, cabaza de mono or zapote tree (a tree with large leaves and a fruit resembling a mono or monkey’s head), the mashan plant (a leaf used for tamales), and a number of other species occupying all levels of the forest’s canopy.  Kate also points out the carefully stacked piles of firewood assembled alongside the trees. Guillermo has made a conscious decision to utilize the land as a diverse ecosystem—one that can provide a cash crop for income, food security for him and his family, improved soil quality, and as a byproduct, wildlife habitat for the surrounding fauna.

Guillermo

Felipe, Guillermo and our posse of ancient farmers proudly lead us through the varied parcel of land, pointing out each of the species and their prospective medicinal and traditional uses.  One of the farmers has a keen eye for ripe fruits, and continually hackcs fruit after fruit off the trees and vines with his machete.  Before long we resemble Carmen Miranda, toting around enough fruit fixings for Chiquita fruit hats of our own.  Soon the dense forest thins and we see another dimension of the small plot. Nestled in the midst of his cacao, mango, and plantain, Guillermo has created a series of well maintained garden plots.  They produce a number of species including corn, beans, peppers, and turmeric that he uses for his own consumption and to sell at the local market.  While he says he uses a few fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, Felipe tells us they would like to incorporate more natural methods.  One natural pesticide they are testing is a mix of water, tobacco, and ground chili pepper.    Guillermo’s integrated approach—combining agriculture and forestry into one system— creates a more diverse, productive, healthy, profitable, and sustainable system of land management.

The farm

After bidding our ancient forest farmers farewell, our attentive guides take us on the short truck ride back to the city for a spot of mid-morning tea, or rather, in Guatemala´s case, pinoli Pinoli is a traditional porridge-like, milky drink thickened with cornmeal and ground cacao, and is used as a morning pick-me-up, afternoon snack, or late evening winding down beverage. In other words, it is consumed at any and all hours of the day.  We spend the next hour chatting and exchanging stories of life in our prospective countries.  We compare health care systems and how disabled citizens are cared for, courtship rituals, politics, cooking recipes, and spend an ample amount of time commending cacao and its boundless benefits.  The four cacao experts quickly co-generate a long list of its medicinal uses including remedies for heart pain, anemia, shortness of breath, kidney and intestinal problems, fever, arthritis, cavities, colon irritation, as well as being a strong source of magnesium and antioxidants.  We come to the conclusion that the conversation should be documented and distributed to all chocolate companies as a promotional video to increase their annual sales.

Felipe smiles his award-winning smile when he describes Guatemalan dating culture.  He is the proud father of three beautiful daughters, and was happy to find out that Guatemalan courting was slightly different than we have in America.  In Guatemala, the parents make the call.  The young man’s parents must accompany him to the house of his potential new girlfriend.  They arrive on the girl´s doorstep, kneeling with a bottle of alcohol in tow.  Before ever seeing the daughter, the four parents talk among themselves to decide if a second meeting should take place.  If the talk goes well, the next “parent date” is arranged.  On the second get-together the suitor’s parents bring bread and chocolate, and may even break out in song as a way to impress the daughter´s parents. A minimum of three more meetings take place between the parents before the young lovers marry.  It is a far cry from the movie night and popcorn we have in the states, but we all agreed that chocolate, no matter the culture, was essential for love to truly flourish.

Bellies happy and minds racing with new knowledge, we thank Guillermo for his hospitality, and follow Felipe to our next destination: lunch!  Lunch was, shall we say, traditional, and prepared lovingly by Felipe’s sister, Tomasina.  Tentatively, we embark on a new gastronomical adventure: cow intestine. The rubber-like outer shell gives way to a carefully spiced interior of a series of unidentifiable meats, which we decide to dub Guatemalan “meatloaf.”  With the help of tortillas and a series of horizontal and vertical jaw movements gnawing through the tough skin, we manage to indulge in a few pieces of this local delicacy.  Somehow, however, the large bag of leftovers Felipe gives us never quite makes its way into any more Cycles of Change bellies.

After the memorable lunch experience Felipe gives us a firsthand lesson in local religion. We learn about the fusion of the Mayan religions and Catholicism.  Many of the gods have both Mayan and Hispanic names and usually are associated with a particular Catholic saint.  Many believe that Christ and the saints have taken their place alongside the Mayan Dios Mundo, the God of the World, and Hurakan, the Heart of Heaven.  Interestingly and little known, the symbol of the cross is also well known to the Maya.  It was used to signify the four winds of heaven, the four cardinal directions, and the winds of life.  Traditionally, every community selects one person to be the caretaker of its individual saint.  The saint is kept in the holder’s home, and once a year, during the community’s designated fiesta, the saint is paraded through the streets.  Felipe takes us to the visit the saint, San Sebastian himself, and his protector.  A truly special experience, and we feel honored.  As the day winds to an end, Felipe leads us to a few more sights.  We wander the town, swap more stories, and Felipe escorts us to the bus station and bids us a sincere farewell.   A great day indeed.

Back at the hostel, we reunite with Janell and Devon.  Stories are exchanged, dinner is consumed, and we sleep soundly with visions of the bovine intestinal tract dancing in our heads.

Alah rah rik and mantioche Felipe!  Thank you for your generosity and kindness!  When we venture back your way one day, be assured we will share another juicy pineapple with you.

Tuesday morning we rise early to board a bus bound for Xocolá (pronounced like the movie title Chocolat). There, we are introduced to the coordinators of Seeds for the Future, a grass-roots organization that empowers local families to plant their own gardens. We receive a guided tour around town to visit a handful of family gardens. Our guide, Armando and the program coordinator of Seeds for the Future, first shows us packets of seeds—primarily donated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization— that include tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, watermelon, squash, celery, cabbage, radish—you name it, they have it. Through supportive instruction, trial and error, families learn how to manage their gardens in such a way they can reap the benefits of healthy, nutritious food, straight from their backyard. We’re impressed by the ingenuity of these families, who creatively use available resources to help construct their gardens—soda bottles for makeshift pots and planters, shredded bags to fashion sticks together to make fences, and rocks to border the perimeters. One family has even constructed their own freshwater fish pond, where they can harvest their own protein source. These families’ pride in their accomplishments is evident from their beaming smiles and their excitement to show us what they know. Armando also shows us the mass-scale worm composting center, where families can buy nutrient-rich worm compost for a reasonable price for their gardens.

Giving the donation to Armando

In the end, we’re thankful for not delivering the nutrition charla, because success stories like Seeds for the Future are impressive. We are so inspired by the efforts made by this organization that we decide to allocate some of our donation money to support their continuing progress and expansion. We make a request to Armando that Seeds for the Future use the money to buy heirloom seeds—seeds that can be saved and passed on from generation to generation. By planting heirloom seeds, families are empowered. Rather than relying on mass-produced hybrid seeds—which often grow quality products, but can’t reproduce—families can learn how to preserve seeds year after year, establishing a firm foundation of self-dependence.

That evening, we continue our loyal patronage to the same little comedor in Asintal, where we have eaten most our meals the past couple days. While sipping hot cocoa, Devon and Alyssa realize they are being hissed at by their Internet café friend, Carlos. They look out of the comedor to see little Carlos—age unknown, but probably around 7 or 8 years old—standing there on the street. He summons all of us over to him and gifts us each a present. Alyssa and Devon receive handwritten letters and drawings. Melissa and Kate each get handcrafted Styrofoam tea kettles, and Janell is given a beaded Guatemalan bracelet and a red tissue paper rose. We thank him profusely for his thoughtful gifts and tell him to meet us outside our hotel in the morning so we can give him a small present too—a Harry Potter book or a necklace. After Carlos leaves, Devon and Alyssa open their letters and read messages that tug at all our heart strings. Alyssa’s letter reads: “With love, Carlos. I like Pepsi. I like Coke. But what I would like most is to give you a kiss on the mouth. God bless you.”

Sadly, the next morning, little Carlos is nowhere to be found, and so we leave Asintal without saying goodbye. We hop on our bikes and cycle for about five minutes before we’re stopped by a police car. The officers tell us that they’ve heard about us (on the radio, perhaps?), and that they plan to escort us to our next destination. It takes a minute for their offer to sink in. A Guatemalan police sag wagon? What could be more of a novelty?

Soon, we’re biking along, five cyclists strong, with a police truck tailing behind. At the junction to Xela, we part ways with Janell so she can hop on a bus and rest for the remainder of the day. Here, our police escorts hand us off to another car. But our first police crew can’t pass up a photo opp before leaving. We pose with them in front of their camera and they send us on our way. Our day continues like this until mid-afternoon: we bike for an hour or so with the next police escort, and we’re passed off to a new police escort in each new area of jurisdiction.

We treat our noon-time officers to lunch, and afterwards begin our ascent up what Guatemalans call the “La Cuesta Reina,” or the Queen of All Hills. It begins to rain. No, pour. Before long we are drenched and pedaling harder than we have in days. Each push at the pedal requires full-body effort to get up the hill. And it just keeps going. And going. The incline is so steep that we’re moving at a snail’s pace. The scene reaches a comical quality, with us inching up the grade, soaked and grimacing, while our police escort car crawls along behind us. Finally, Melissa bails due to some pain in her knee. Kate, Devon and Alyssa continue on, slow but sure. They don’t get more than another kilometer before a second police car pulls up next to them and warns them about dangerous landslide conditions ahead. They advise that everyone piles into the car to be driven the rest of the way. We decide that when an officer tells you to get in the car, you get in the car. So, we get in car. The suspicious part is we don’t see any evidence of landslide danger—no rivers of water or large rocks on the road—like the officer told us. Perhaps the other policemen realized that it would be another couple hours before we reached the summit of the hill, and thus called for backup to craft a story to convince us to cut our cycle short. Either way, we are grateful for the lift and arrive in the town of Zunil before no time and say farewell to our friends in high places.

Although Zunil is not our planned destination, we are all so chilled to the bone that we decide to stay the night. Out of curiosity, we check out a fancy hotel that advertises private bungalows, a natural eco-sauna, food from the garden served in the restaurant, and a private Jacuzzi and fireplace. We vacillate over whether the perks are worth the extra cost. Perhaps it’s the cold. Perhaps it’s the hunger. Perhaps it’s the seductive pull of a private Jacuzzi and fireplace. In the end, we cave and stay the night at the ritziest hotel of our trip. All said and done, we realize that $12 bucks a person isn’t so outrageous for all the added accoutrements. We relax our sore muscles and warm up our cold core temperatures in the eco-sauna, which is infused with rosemary aromatherapy. Then it’s Jacuzzi time. While enjoying the hot water, Kate announces, “I feel like a princess!” We lounge in our private bungalow, sad that Janell isn’t with us, but still enjoying the impressive view of Guatemalan hillside agriculture from our window. Before bed, we play Chinese checkers in front of the fireplace and then sleep soundly in the lap of luxury.

Wednesday morning we enjoy a gastronomic extravaganza. Super Desayunos (Super Breakfasts) all around! We tentatively decide to use room service to order breakfast—a concept so foreign that it seems too good to be true. Kate orders a steaming plate of hotcakes while the rest of us enjoy a Super Desayuno. It is truly a feast to behold—oatmeal, homemade whole wheat raisin bread, fresh garden apple jelly, quality coffee, cream, fried bananas, scrambled eggs, black beans, tortillas, several kinds of salsa, watermelon, and fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Bellies full, we mount our bikes and ride into Zunil proper, a quaint highland town with a prominent indigenous culture, where people are wearing some of the most beautiful textiles we have seen yet. We peruse the local women’s weaving cooperative before riding an easy 20 kilometers to Xela, where we meet up with our beloved Janell once again. Sadly, we arrive to our hostel too late to find food at the nearby marketplace. But, before all hope is lost, we notice a group of people crowding around the trunk of a car. As we approach the scene, we realize that the inside of the trunk is steaming with pots of meat, pans of sauces and bags of tomales. We decide that trunk takeout might be an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so we place an order and enjoy some curbside dining.

Friday morning, the five of us reunited, we spend a leisurely morning preparing a spread of French toast, honey, peach compote, hot chocolate, and eggs. After breakfast, we ride to San Cristobal where we meet Kate and Abby, current Peace Corps volunteers. Kate is living in San Cristobal and Abby is visiting her from San Lorenzo. We spend the night at Kate’s spacious pad, eating salad, sipping cocoa, and swapping stories. Thanks girls for such a great time!

The festival dance

Saturday we ride about 20 kilometers to Pologuá, where we stop to eat lunch, drink arroz con leche, and savor purple sweet potatoes. We then discover that our maps are off, and reaching our destination of Huehuetenango might take longer than we imagined. We book a night at the only hotel in town, a dingy, foul-smelling, flea-infested place. Kate, Melissa and Alyssa decide to get some air and wander through the town fair that coincidently came to town when we did. For the celebration, a circle of people crowd around a performance of some sort. The spectacle is odd, to say the least. A dozen or so men, and a few women—all in costume, some in drag—are dancing poorly to the music of a live band. They shuffle back and forth, awkwardly lifting their arms in a strained effort to execute half-hearted dance moves. The scene is both entertaining and sad, and before long, the girls lose interest and head to the Ferris wheel. At the fairgrounds, they get their first taste of Guatemalan carnies, some of whom are teenage boys who try to cop a feel on Alyssa’s leg after she boards the Ferris wheel, just to “make sure the safety bar is secure.”

A pleasant ride on the Ferris wheel

Picture your typical Ferris wheel. A relaxing family pastime, this quintessential fair ride is both mildly boring and liberating at the same time. You gain a bird’s-eye view of the fair below, while rocking and circulating at a gentle pace. Now, to get an idea of this Guatemalan Ferris wheel, throw that image completely out. Picture Alyssa, Melissa and Kate clutching the sides of the cart for dear life, as they are catapulted around and around the axis. Screaming and nervously laughing as their cart rocks and rolls with stomach-flipping momentum, they try not to assess the potentially sketchy mechanics of this Guatemalan Ferris wheel. Thankfully, they make it off the ride alive, stomachs a bit more churned than before.

Landslide aftermath

Sunday morning we embark on the 53 remaining kilometers to Huehuetenango. But, about 10 kilometers in, the aftermath of a massive landslide blocks our passage. Work teams have begun to clear a path, but we learn that it will be hours before the highway is open again. For this situation in particular, it sure feels good to be traveling by bike. Assessing our options, we decide to haul our bikes through the forest that skirts the highway. It’s a struggle maneuvering our loaded bikes up and down steep slippery slopes, but, after a lot of grunting and teamwork we reach the other side!

Climbing through the forest

En route to Huehuetenango, we call Cesar, the nice old man who wanted to organize a welcome party for us. When he learns our whereabouts, he announces that he’s on his way up to meet us to bike with our crew until Huehue. Soon, good ole’ Cesar pulls up in a car with his family. Our hearts soften when we see Cesar jump out of the car, his lankiness accentuated by his full-body bike spandex getup, wearing a huge grin on his face. For a few hours, our team is back up to six! Cesar’s family drives behind us sag-wagon style until we arrive in Huehue. There, take Cesar’s family out to lunch at a restaurant with live marimba music. When the music starts playing, Cesar gets a mischievous gleam in his eye and offers his hand to Alyssa for a dance. They move across the floor with ease, Alyssa following Cesar’s effortless lead. Next, it’s Devon’s turn. Then Melissa and Cesar boogy down with some freestyle dance moves. Kate and Janell come after. And for the grand finale, Cesar dances with all the women at once, and everyone gets down, groovin’ and laughing to the rhythm of marimba.

Group photo with Cesar's family

We part ways with Cesar and his wonderful family after they guide us into the center of town. A memorable welcome party, indeed. That night we celebrate how far we’ve journeyed on the trip by feasting on massive salads and desserts at the nearby bakery. Our celebration continues back at our hotel room, where we endure a session of Ab Ripper X, followed by an epic dance party to Ke$ha’s “TikTok.”

The morning is a sad one, as we must part ways with Janell. We go through the ritual—tears, hugs, a group photo. Then we say goodbye. We miss you, Janell! We hope you had an amazing time in Mexico and that you’re loving life back at home in Ohio!

Aguacaton woman

Down to four, Cycles of Change rides on, 50 kilometers to the destination town of Sacapulas. We cycle east from Huehuetenango to a town called Aguacatón, where we eat lunch. Here, we notice, indigenous women wear white embroidered blouses with simple patterned skirts, their hair often adorned with a bright red headband, wrap, or brightly colored pom poms. From Aguacatón we slog up some killer hills until we reach a highland road with expansive valleys on either side bordered by towering mountainous terrain. The highway then begins to dip sharply down, along a potentially hazardous landslide stretch. We brake hard on the descent, stopping occasionally to rest the strained muscles in our aching hands.

Cycling to Sacapulas

About a kilometer from the bottom of the hill, Alyssa’s tire instantaneously flattens, and she crashes to the ground, the side of her hip scraping against the rough pavement. Luckily, she walks away from the accident without any other injuries. Her bike, however, doesn’t fare so well. The tube is beyond repair and the tire is shredded. One of the brake handles is also seriously damaged. Unable to ride on, Alyssa and Melissa hail a truck to take them the rest of the way. Kate and Devon bike the last stretch and group reunites in the little town of Sacapulas.

Feeling beaten and bruised and tired, we nourish our spirits with some hot arroz con leche, tostadas with beets, carrots and cheese, and corn soup at a street stand. It has been a long, hardcore week. A week of extremes and adventures. But, we know that Alyssa’s wound will heal. Her bike will get fixed. We still have much to see in Guatemala and can hardly wait to see what the country has in store for us in the week to come.

The Wound

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Safe and sound

To ease the worries of our friends and family, we are all safe. There have been many landslides in Guatemala over the last few days, but thankfully we were in a different part of the country and were able to avoid problems and dangers. Thank you to all of you for your thoughts and cares. More updates to come soon!

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August 11 to 19- We Heart Guatemala

Taste the rainbow

In a way, our passage into Guatemala has been like our deliverance, and in truth, we are eager converts. We feast our eyes upon plot after well-tended plot of corn, lettuce, carrots, beets—all of it growing in dark, fertile soil—and we know that Guatemala will offer us a more varied edible smorgasbord than previous countries. Rather than monotonous tones of white, off-white, and the occasional brown, plates of food here more often resemble the color palette of Skittles—and it’s amazing to taste that rainbow.

Woven Guatemalan textiles

Like birds of the Corvid family, the girls in the group have become mesmerized by all that shines and sparkles in this country, which includes most of the indigenous attire. The brilliantly colored textiles blaze in vibrant hues and most are embellished with dazzling embroidery or intricate beadwork. The complex woven patterns occasionally rival those of Escher. Indigenous women wear woven skirts complemented by embroidered tops, their hair either braided with ribbon or twisted and knotted just above their foreheads. These women are as beautiful and have as much poise as princesses. They walk about with graceful ease, balancing baskets of fruit, tortillas, textiles and other goods atop their heads. Interacting with these women is like listening to a sweet lullaby, since the gentle cadence of their voices is so delightfully singsongy.

Who needs a backpack when you can use your noggin?

Twenty-one different Mayan indigenous languages are spoken in Guatemala. Thus far, we’ve heard several of them, picking up words here and there, like the always handy hello, goodbye, and thank you. The indigenous locals giggle when we try out our new vocab, as if thinking, “Sure, throw out a few local words and you’ll surely disguise the fact that you’re gringos clad in blinding neon jerseys and spandex, schlepping loads of stuff around by bike.”

After breezing through the Honduras-Guatemala border, about half a day into our 70 kilometer ride, we become desperately hungry. The problem: we keep pedaling kilometer after long kilometer without finding a single little comedor. As beautiful as the Guatemalan rural landscape is, we’re ready to find some signs of civilization—preferably the kind that will serve us a hefty portion of lunch.

Finally, just as the trees are beginning to look like stalks of broccoli and the cows like T-bone steaks, we enter a town to find our first sampling of Guatemalan cuisine. And by golly is it good! We’re not sure whether the astronomically rich flavors of meat, potatoes, tortillas and unidentified red sauce can be attributed to our ravenous hunger, the fact that we’re eating something different than baleadas, or that, truth be told, it’s actually just really delicious food.

Popsicles!

After lunch, we cruise along until we reach a freakishly long downhill, where we seem to lose hundreds and hundreds of feet in elevation. During the interminable descent, in the middle of nowhere, Alyssa, Devon and Kate spot a little old man pushing an ice cream cart down the hill in the oppressive heat. The spectacle is just so random and mirage-like the girls decide they can’t pass up the opportunity. They buy a round of lime flavored, chemical-green popsicles, and then watch as the old man continues to push his ice cream cart slowly down the hill, until the sweet tinkling of his little bell becomes faint in the distance.

Market fruit stand

Soon we reach Chiquimula (minus Janell, who stayed in Copan to catch a shuttle to Antigua with our fellow travelers, Mary and Nora), just as the sun is starting to scorch our backs like a hot iron. After landing a steal of a deal at a quiet little hotel in the heart of the city, we hurry to the bustling central market square, where, lo and behold, we gaze upon mound after miraculous mound of peaches, strawberries, blackberries, lychees, apples, oranges, bananas, papaya, watermelon, beets, fried plantains, tamales, and a funny looking fruit called anona. We feast on produce and fried sweet plantains filled with beans and sit in the park sampling anona, which tastes like an odd cross between banana and guanabana (a white-fleshed tangy tropical fruit). By the end of our feast, it’s official. We are in love with Guatemala.

Another glorious market fruit stand!

The following day we drift around the market, indulging in fresh produce and eyeing the artisan wares, wishing we had just a little more room in our panniers to carry some extra weight. Kate decides to treat herself and buys a brand new pair of authentic Guatemalan leather boots and becomes the envy of us all, or at least Devon, who is a bit of a cowboy boot connoisseur herself.

After a pleasant morning soaking in the sights, smells, and tantalizing tastes of Guatemala, the group waits for a shuttle bus, artfully arranged by Janell to pick them up in front of the city’s shopping mall. Although the shuttle is a couple hours late, the group finally reunites with Janell, Mary and Nora, and we embark on a five hour ride to Antigua, to avoid both cycling along the shoulderless highway and dodging Guatemala City traffic.

Car parade through Antigua

Five hours later, the group is dropped off in Antigua’s prim and trim central park. The temperature is brisk and layers of clothes are donned for the first time on the trip. We snake our way through the labyrinth of cobblestone streets until we reach our hotel, which affords a view of the towering Bacaya volcano. Here, the newest member of Cycles of Change, Melissa, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Panama, greets us with hugs and cheer and we warmly welcome her back to Central America.

We spend the next few days meandering through the city, feeling overwhelmed by artisan markets, the abundance of fine restaurants we can’t afford, and the fact that many people speak English, which never fails to throw us off. Our first day in Antigua, while the boys venture off on a hike, the girls set out on a quest to find artisan chocolate, and succeed. Handmade truffles abound at Chocolalala, a ritzy little hole-in-the-wall where the girls sample confectionary chocolates made with cardamom, pistachio, honeyed ginger, and rosemary.

Lunch

For lunch, the girls get directions to a hidden comedor, which few tourists would know existed unless given a referral from a local. At first the girls are confused, because the directions lead them to a little tienda selling packaged food items. But they linger just long enough for the little old lady behind the counter to wave them through, back behind the counter and into a dimly lit room with about fifty framed paintings of crucified Jesus hanging on the walls. Inside, they are greeted by a handful of short, ancient, Guatemalan women. The sampling of food is divine, and the lack of any visible tourist influence on the place is a welcome change in Antigua.

Market women weaving

In the afternoon, Kate, Melissa and Devon venture to a weavers market in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, a small town outside Antigua, where they hope to dabble in the art of back strap weaving and maybe even purchase a few souvenirs. The experience is markedly more overwhelming than any of them imagined. The market features stall after stall of beautiful woven goods. It’s the kind of environment that’s so overly stocked with lovely material items one almost feels obligated to help them clear out some inventory. Although one might not necessarily need a vibrant woven table runner, the skillful barrage of sales tactics entice you enough to consider buying one for your estranged aunt. “What is your name? Kati? A special discount just for you, Kati! Tell me, what is your price? You will need a special something to remember Guatemala. A present for your sister, or your boyfriend, maybe?” Yes, these women are good. They make you feel guilty for even looking at the merchandise, because you know you’re not going to buy it, and yet you kind of want it, but you can’t afford it, and oh god, now everyone at the market knows your name and might track you down if you leave without buying something!

Group photo in front of the central park fountain featuring lactating mermaids

The girls finally manage to escape the weavers market in a fatigued daze and catch a bus back to Antigua. There, the entire group spends a lovely evening with Mary, Nora, Katie, and Kieran, grabbing some dinner grub and then playing an amusing game of Taboo.

While pleasant, the following day is overshadowed by Logan’s imminent departure. Alyssa, Logan and Devon return to Chocolalala for more truffles and then stumble upon a stall of pastel textiles, all woven by women from a small indigenous cooperative and colored with natural dyes made from carrots, insects, avocados, berries and coffee.

Dinner spread

Meanwhile, Peter scours the city for a bike box for his own flight back to the states in a few days. A box is finally found, just after Logan, Alyssa and Devon return to the hostel sporting matching Panama hats. For dinner, the group finds an impressive buffet of typical Guatemalan fare to host a farewell dinner for Logan. That evening is a sad one, and many group photos are taken, inside jokes are recalled and tearful goodbyes are made. After a truly minimal amount of sleep, Logan rises at around 3:45 a.m. to catch a shuttle to the airport, and our team is officially down to six. (We miss you so much Logan! Since your departure, we have experienced so many moments when one of us will say, “Logan would have loved this!”)

Star sport!

Sunday, we decide, must be none other than National Exercise Day in Guatemala. During our morning exit out of Antigua, we stumble upon a running race. The problem: we bike right into the race, heading the wrong way. We emerge from the mishap unscathed and make our gradual way to Tecpán, some 50 kilometers away. Along the way we spot a female jogger with a brick in each hand. We also find ourselves in the midst of yet another race, but this time, with other cyclists. Again, we are moving in the opposite direction, but we cheer on the spandex-clad racers as they whiz past us, envious of their load-free bikes.

After some significant elevation gain on Melissa’s first day of cycling, we reach Tecpán, chilled to the bone and in dire need of hot showers. We find a hotel, warm up our core temperatures, and then indulge in a four-course meal of grilled corn-on-the-cob, hot chocolate and cookies, tostadas (fried tortillas topped with beets, carrots, cheese and ground meat), pupusas (cheese-filled tortillas), arroz con leche (warm milk with rice and spices), and arroz con chocolate (rice drink with chocolate). (Logan, you would have said this was the best meal yet!) After devouring dinner, Janell, Melissa and Peter return to the hostel while Kate, Devon and Alyssa decide to hit up the local festivities.

Celebrating whateveritwas

Although the girls don’t quite understand what the good people of Tecpán are celebrating, their way of celebrating whateveritis proves to be quite the hair-raising ritual. The girls follow the crowds to a large congregation of people obviously watching and waiting for something to happen, as they have made space in the middle of the crowd for a show of some variety to take place.

Alyssa, Kate and Devon are taken aback when they realize the craziness that is about to ensue. Men have formed themselves into groups to compete in a challenge to win $500 (US). All they have to do is untie the bundle of money. The problem: the bundle of money is strapped to the top of a fifty-foot wooden pole coated in wax. The rules: anything goes. The girls can’t decide whether the competitors are brave or just plain foolhardy. But they watch as group after group attempts to climb the pole, standing one on top of each other’s shoulders and holding on for dear life. Each attempt usually measures about four-men tall until the bottom guy crumples under the weight of bodies and they all slide slowly and sadly back down the pole. The highlight of the night occurs when one group rests a rickety old ladder against the pole (again, anything goes) and one guy stands at the top of the ladder while three others stand on top of him. Next, a smaller dude clenching a dagger between his teeth pulls his way up each body until he reaches the top! He tries again and again to hang on for dear life while untying the wad of cash, but to no avail. Defeated, the group slides down the pole. As much fun as this all is to watch, the girls decide to head back to the hostel before witnessing a freak death.

Tecpan ruins

Monday morning we rise and visit the Tecpán Mayan ruins, which are less impressive than those in Copan, but more intimate. We leave the town around noon and make it about 38 kilometers before we realize how cold, rainy and close to sunset it is. We stop for the night at Los Encuentros, about 12 kilometers from our planned destination. At our hotel, we fiddle with the showerhead in vain, praying for hot, even maybe mildly lukewarm, water to pour forth. Peter and Alyssa brave the icy water, while the others wait, and their patience—or maybe just their cowardice— is rewarded with steaming hot showers later that evening.

Bustling market in Solola

Tuesday morning our breakfast consists of arroz con leche con cornflakes (Logan, you would have loved this!), and then we descend to Sololá, a town with a bustling marketplace that caters to locals rather than to tourists. Here, we see both men and women dressed in traditional clothing. The market is truly alive, bursting at the seams with local flavor. Crowds of people squeeze past each other through a maze of stalls chalk full of fancy textiles, fluffy little chicks, stuffed animals, naked Barbie dolls, shoes, fruit, vegetables, blue corn tortillas, dishware, hats, hanging meat (including a grilled armadillo) and almost anything a local could ask for.

Lago Atitlan ferry launch

Peter and Alyssa part ways with the group to cycle the rest of the way to San Pedro la Laguna—Peter’s last cycle in Central America before his departure date on the 20th. Melissa, Kate, Janell and Devon decide to bike down the steep switchback road to the shore of Lago Atitlán to catch a ferry ride across the lake to meet up with Peter and Alyssa in San Pedro la Laguna. The ferry speeds across the lake, the bow of the boat slamming down with a mighty slap each time it crests another wave.

Held up at the landslide

Meanwhile, Alyssa and Peter navigate their way to the turn-off from the Pan-American Highway that will lead them to our lakeside destination. After about 30 kilometers, they begin their steep descent to Lago Atitlán. Clutching their brake handles for dear life, Peter and Alyssa wind their way down hairpin turns, down a poorly paved road with a something percent grade. Feeling the impending force of gravity potentially launching them over their handlebars, they lean back a bit more in their bike saddles and pray that their brake pads hold out. After hearing the squeal of metal on metal from the lack of brake pads scraping along their wheel rims, Alyssa and Peter decide to walk their bikes. They hitch a ride with a bus, and then a flatbed truck. But, about one kilometer before reaching San Pedro, they encounter the aftermath of a landslide blocking the way for vehicular traffic. Although their bikes can easily sneak across the muddy debris, a gruff and grumpy policeman forbids their passage. After a half hour of waiting for permission, Alyssa and Peter lose patience and take off without the stern policeman’s blessing.

Just before dark, Peter and Alyssa reunite with the others and everyone is relieved to be together again. We feast on monster burritos and beer and are all amazed when Peter finishes his burrito, which, before consumed, dwarfed the size of his forearm.

Lake paddle

Wednesday the girls take kayaks out on the lake—a perfect way to appreciate the majestic scenery of the location. A sizeable body of water, Lago Atitlán is visually stunning, with towering volcanoes shooting up from the shore, which are often enshrouded in clouds, producing a magnificently ethereal effect. Paddling parallel to the shoreline, the girls observe multi-tiered garden plots situated on almost vertical hillsides. Some locals are out in their gardens, hoeing and weeding, while others stand knee-deep in water washing clothes in the lake.

The rest of the afternoon is relaxed and relatively uneventful. By evening, most everyone is desperately hungry. All day the girls have had their hearts set on green curry and brownie sundaes for dinner at a certain restaurant that advertises these dishes. But after sitting down to order, the waiter breaks the news that brownie sundaes are not an option on this particular evening. The group the proceeds to wait for their food to be served for well over an hour, only to discover that the green curry tastes more like brothy vegetable soup.

But, the Cycles of Change gang is not easily defeated, and we plan our grand send-off ceremony for Peter. We decide that the evening’s activity will focus on a small, aluminum ring. The ring was gifted to Devon by a little boy named Brandon, who she met under a bridge during a downpour several days prior. Although the ring fits perfectly on her wedding finger, Devon decides not to give her heart away so easily and instead announces that this small object should serve an entirely different purpose.

Taking group photos is what we do when we're not cycling...

Thus, for Wednesday night’s festivities, each member of the group is re-christened with Lord of the Rings character names. We solemnly assume our new identities, acutely aware of the grave importance of the task that lies ahead. We purposefully make our way down to the ferry dock under the cloak of darkness and proceed to take a bunch of very authentic character photos: Frodevon with Meldolf; Legalyssa with Jimli; Smeter with Frodevon and Katewise. Then, after a desperate struggle over the fate of The Ring, Frodevon and Smeter decide to make amends and toss the sacred object into the murky depths of Mordor together.

We miss you, Peter!

And then it’s time to face reality. Peter is leaving us the next day, and spirits are noticeably low. The series of events the following morning doesn’t improve the situation. The girls realize that their bus up the Hairpin Road of Ill-Fated Bike Rides is leaving much sooner than anticipated and rushed goodbyes are made. We’re sorry, Peter! Our farewell was much too hurried! We wish you well on your tour up the West Coast in the states! We miss you, Pedro. Stay safe and have fun.

And now, Cycles of Change is down to five…

**Special thanks to Kay for the marvelous assortment of snacks! We enjoyed them thoroughly and devoured them much too quickly.

Snack time!!!

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August 5 to 11- Bean to bar and busting through the border

Handful of quality cacao beans

It’s Thursday, August 5—showtime. Another impressive turnout of promoters, and, despite Kat’s lamentable absence from the lineup, Kate and Janell appear no less effective at tag-teaming the charla business in Omoa. Promoters here work with farmers of the San Fernando cooperative, a subsidiary of sorts of the larger Aprocacaho cooperative. Aprocacaho sells 155,000 pounds of beans a year—most of it to Chocolat Halba in Switzerland—fetching a little more than a dollar per pound. In 1997 the cooperative took out a loan and built a processing plant to extract cocoa butter, the rich, concentrated stuff added to improve the creamy quality of almost all chocolatey products the world over. Almost as a bonus, grinding the dregs of this de-fatted cacao results in the bitter, brown dust we all know as cocoa powder. So this processing plant—the only one in Honduras and one of the few in all of Central America—with its dual-purpose processing, proved to be quite the asset—that is, until the cooperative defaulted on its loan, thus relinquishing ownership to another organization that stepped in shortly afterward. Now the plant stands vacant and defunct, but the cooperative’s got its eye on it yet. This is an example where a tad more administrative and organizational training could have helped to improve the cooperative’s business and the lives of their members. So if you want your dollar to go a little bit further when buying fine chocolate, here is a great example of what that money helps support.  Aprocacaho is in the process (year two of three) of getting its organic and fair trade certifications, and once these are attained the cooperative will likely see higher profits, and—who knows—maybe have a better chance of reclaiming the plant.

The rich innards of a quality cacao bean

Sure, organically grown, fairly traded chocolate is all good and well, but what does this mean from a cacao cooperative’s standpoint? And why, at production line’s end, does said chocolate cost more than the average Hershey bar at the checkout stand? These are questions that (hopefully) should concern every chocolate consumer, from cavity-addled kids to chocoholic moms to the most discerning connoisseurs. The answers vary from place to place, though, so we’ll stick to the Central American regions in our ken—the cacao we know about. Most importantly, we ask, is the costlier chocolate worth it?

Aprocacaho's new drying station

First let’s discuss the relationship between a cacao cooperative and its status as an organic and/or Fair Trade operation. Within the scope of human history and our history with chocolate, cacao has only recently been labeled a cash crop. For this reason, here in Central America, people are still trying to work out the kinks of the industry, smoothing it out in a way that will best protect the environment, preserve cultures, and economically benefit producers and their families. In Central America, cacao isn’t confined to one or two big industrial-style monoculture farms. Rather, families, usually in rural, lowland areas, produce cacao on a small plot of land, within a sustainable agroforestry system of fruit, timber and food for their families. Since small producers of cacao are so geographically dispersed, a central organizing force becomes necessary to ensure that not only does all cacao meets standards for quality through the fermenting and drying processes, but that it all winds up in the same place to be stored, and then shipped around the world to processing plants to make the products we all know and love. Before cooperatives came around, farmers sold to middlemen, leaving farmers at the mercy of market fluctuations and the mood of the buyer.  The middlemen take a chunk of the profit, reducing the farmer’s income. Over the last ten years, more cooperatives have sprung up around Central America, creating organized groups of farmers ready to improve their production and business.

Nutrition charla

This is where the importance of training and organizing farmers comes in. Projects like PCC (Central American Cacao Project, administrated by CATIE, a tropical research institute) hire promoters as regional extension agents to help cacao farmers increase production and improve the quality of their product. As the demand for organic chocolate increases, farmers must incorporate new farming techniques into the ways their families have harvested cacao for generations. Many Central American cacao farmers use organic practices—since chemicals are costly, and for the most part, unnecessary— new techniques must be learned to increase production to meet demand. This takes planning, time and money. Promoters of regional cooperatives help farmers figure out the most feasible way to grow enough quality cacao to meet the market interest.

Don Guadalupe explaining Aprocacaho's fermentation process

Generally, transitioning from conventional farming to organic certification status is a costly process that takes two to three years. Becoming Fair Trade certified also requires time, loads of paperwork, and again, money. A common misconception, however, is that only organic and Fair Trade certified products are verifiably organic and fairly traded. Labels and the lack thereof can be deceptive. The cooperatives we’ve visited so far on this trip (in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala) have not obtained Fair Trade or organic certifications, yet the farmers still use organic practices and are paid a price per pound for their cacao that is comparable, if not more than, the price earned by Fair Trade and organically certified farmers in Panama. The take-home message then, is that relying on labels alone can lead a consumer astray, or at least away from equally reputable producers of quality cacao.

Although it appears that Don Guadalupe is doing a jig, he's actually explaing the cacao drying process.

So back to answering the question of why Fair Trade, organic bean-to-bar chocolate, such as that produced by Theo Chocolate based in Seattle, Washington, costs more than a conventional bar from a company like Hershey or Nestle. Or rather, why should a person consider opting for the pricier product? In a nutshell, paying the extra dollar or two often pays for quality, organic farming techniques, and ensuring that farmers are paid a decent price for their product. Buying a bar from a bean-to-bar company like Theo Chocolate or Askinosie, based in Springfield, Missouri, also ensures the cacao takes a more direct route from farm to company. Theo and Askinosie purchase their cacao directly from cooperatives around the world. This cuts out the extra step of sending cacao to European processing plants before it reaches the actual chocolate company, which also reduces the carbon footprint. Thus, a dollar spent on a Theo or Askinosie bar can more directly impact and benefit cacao farmers than a dollar spent on a more conventional product. And, rest assured, these consumer dollars have a visible impact on the lives of farmers. Maria, a Honduran cacao farmer and single mother, was able to rebuild her house after an earthquake destroyed it last year with the money she earned from one season’s cacao harvest. In Panama, members of Kate and Janell’s communities set goals to save or reinvest cacao earnings in order to buy necessities like new roofs for houses, school uniforms for their children, or livestock. Growing cacao is also a sustainable way to conserve fragile tropical ecosystems. Responsibly harvesting this renewable resource can preserve a symbiotic relationship between communities and their environment.

The blender game

So basically, if you are a conscientious consumer who either cares about the livelihoods of farmers in developing countries, or about conserving and restoring rainforests, or both, a fairly traded, organic bar of chocolate may seem worth the extra price. By receiving a fair price for their cacao, farmers begin to value their work and feel empowered to improve their own lives instead of waiting around for international donations and government handouts.  Moreover, if you care enough, you can research your favorite brands to find out where the cacao is sourced from, to help decide where you want your money to go, and who you want to support.

Group photo of Cycles of Change and members of Aprocacaho

So, to wrap it up, when you hand over your money for a fine bar of chocolate, some of that dough goes to employees of the chocolate factory, and some pays for the quality ingredients and careful preparation of the final hunk of chocolately goodness. A chunk of change supports the improvement of socially and environmentally responsible production. Another portion gets delivered to the cacao cooperatives so they can pay their workers and extension agents who provide technical support for farmers. And finally, farmers earn a decent sum that will improve their family’s quality of life and help them continue to take good care of their land and the environment.

Kate with Guadalupe's kissing bird

Anyway, back to our story. Following the nutrition charla, Don Guadalupe, the congenial and longwinded vice president and founder of Aprocacaho, invites us to his home for a healthy snack of Pringles, pork rinds, fried plantains and the ubiquitous Pepsi, which in Honduras, Guadalupe confides, is consumed in greater quantities than water. Guadalupe proudly tours us through his spacious pad, complete with caged tropical birds, African art, and a swimming pool. His son, who now works as a United Nations Food AID distributor, designed and built the house after his successful endeavors as a pilot. It’s evident that Guadalupe and his family have worked hard, and their material signs of wealth seem well deserved since Guadalupe has spearheaded many successes for the cooperative. In his home, we simultaneously feel relaxed in the arms of luxury and puzzled by the drastic division of wealth in Honduras, a country where some people can afford surround-sound home entertainment systems, while others are surrounded by the seemingly insurmountable walls of poverty.

Promoters teaching the charla

Our experience the next day is a tad more humbling, since we convene outside a small casa high in the hills, owned by the aforementioned, kindhearted cacao farmer named Maria. The cacao promoters expertly lead the seminar, emphasizing the central message that a nutritious diet is not the privilege of a few, but reasonably obtainable by anyone with some soil, seeds, a little bit of knowhow and a local store thrown in for good measure.

Maria making tortillas

Meanwhile, Maria is preparing a hearty stew with a beef base and generous portions of fresh corn, potato, yucca, carrot and squash. She pats soft, cream-colored dough into perfectly round tortillas. The sound of tortillas slapping back and forth from palm to palm has become a favorite of ours in the Honduran soundtrack. Janell equates the sound to horses clip clopping down cobblestones, but Devon argues that surely it is the clap clap slap noise a fat man must make when he happily pats his belly. Peter sides with Devon, affirming with full confidence that there could not be a more accurate description, for reasons that are not fully elaborated. All noise comparisons aside, Kate decides she must learn how to make tortillas before the trip is over, and she and Devon receive a tutorial on the art of slap slap slapping.

Kate making a tortilla

The task seems easy enough, but Kate and Devon clearly lack the technique, as their floppy disks of dough repeatedly tear apart or resemble the shapes of oblong amoebas more than perfectly rounded saucers. After all the tortillas have been repaired and prepared, lunch is served. Maria’s stew and Kate and Devon’s tortillas are veritable hits.

Following the charla, Don Guadalupe whisks Kate, Alyssa and Devon up the hill in his Jeep Wrangler to the cooperative’s new center for fermenting and drying cacao beans. The cooperative has chosen prime real estate, indeed. The sweeping view of the Caribbean is a glistening aqua seascape from the center’s lofty location high on a hilltop. Guadalupe gives the grand tour of the innovative setup for drying, efficiently fermenting, and storing the beans. Kate is impressed by the cooperative’s attention to quality control, evident in the sophisticated yet simple design. The system is equipped with a wood-fire dryer, an appropriate technology that uses an attainable resource in a way locals are accustomed to, in addition to preventing weather from negatively impacting the quality of the beans. Although the cooperative has big dreams for the future, Kate sees these initial steps taken by Aprocacaho as a good indicator that their goals may someday be fulfilled.

View from Aprocacaho's new cacao center

After the tour, we part ways with Guadalupe and say a sad farewell to our gracious host, Ramón, co-founder of the San Fernando cacao cooperative and the local agricultural extension agent. We then catch a van back to Choloma, where our bikes are stored beside a cozy little office, which would be our accommodation for the night. The office belongs to Aprocacaho, and it comes with all the amenities we could ask for: internet access, microwave, refrigerator/freezer unit, air-conditioning, 24-hour surveillance, and occasional running water. Dinner that night is popcorn, garlic mashed potatoes with steamed broccoli and hot chocolate—all prepared via microwave—followed by a tub of ice cream we kept relatively cold (though not frozen) in the freezer.

In the morning we ride into the metropolis of San Pedro Sula, where Janell and Logan hop on a bus bound for Quimistan, 80 kilometers distant. The others follow on their bikes, cruising along the gently undulating terrain that has come to characterize this part of Honduras. After a long, hot slog in the sun, Alyssa, Devon and Kate indulge in some cold fresh fruit drinks at a random smoothie stand along the side of the road. The girls are so grateful for this unexpected surprise that Alyssa swears its existence must only be ephemeral and anxiously nabs a smoothie before the mirage disappears. The journey continues for a longer distance than anticipated, but the group receives a flowery email from Logan describing the quaint little town of Quimistan. They gratefully learn that their destination is a quiet place of home-baked muffins and free international phone calls, rather than the imagined skyline of chemical-spewing smokestacks. With heightened spirits, the group presses on to Quimistan. That night, food is eaten, TV is watched, and a number of international phone calls are made.

On Sunday, the team enjoys a scenic cycle to La Entrada, a metropolitan strip of no real note, save for the fact that here we enjoy one of our final tastes of a favorite Honduran foodstuff: the baleada. Eggs, beans, cheese and sometimes meat or avocado folded into a piping hot, fresh tortilla.

We leave La Entrada on Monday the next morning and start the day off with the Hill that Never Ends. What makes the climb doable is the gradual grade, and what makes the ascent almost enjoyable is the Sound of Music type of terrain. The views are so green and charming, we half-expect to see Julie Andrews frolicking up and down the hillsides. But Peter and Logan snap back to reality when they are accosted by a feisty gang of rural kids brandishing machetes and demanding money. Peter and Logan call the children’s bluff, but pick up the pace and quickly bypass the situation. Despite a few false summits, we eventually begin our descent to Copan, a colonial style tourist town with uneven cobblestone streets, an inviting feel, and located in close proximity to a well-preserved maze of Mayan ruins.

Cycles of Change pyramid atop a pyramid!

We spend most of the day Tuesday travelling back in time (sans hot tub—that witty joke was meant for Kat, Logan and Peter), to an era where the “beautiful people” have flat foreheads, green dentures and crossed eyes. Our guide through the ruins, Juan Carlos, has a welcome sense of humor and shines a lot of light on ancient Mayan culture. We shamelessly play the tourist card again and again; taking many posed group photos in front of statues and carved stone images, in addition to building a human pyramid atop a Mayan one. How clever is that?

That evening, Kate experiences a small-world moment when we discover that we’re staying at the same hostel as Mary and Nora, who both grew up in Kate’s hometown of Anacortes, Washington. We all immediately become friends and spend an enjoyable time together crossing paths over the next few days. Thanks for hanging out, girls!

On Wednesday, finally, the day has come. Cycles of Change will make their highly anticipated grand entrance into Guatemala, a country where dreams will come true, much food will be eaten, and a whole lot of shopping will commence! Honduras was fun in retrospect, and the adventures that were had will never be forgotten, but the team is giddy with excitement about hopping across the border. Almost too giddy. Devon is so jubilant at the prospect that she nearly wheels herself into a roadside ditch. She recovers quickly and the rest of the ride to the border proceeds without incident. The border crossing is as effortless as a Slip ‘n’ Slide, seamlessly sliding us on through.

Goodbye Honduras!

The team bids a bittersweet farewell to Honduras, land of rough roads and gun-toting cowboys, where Pepsi reigns supreme, and the distribution of wealth is polarized dramatically. Although we have concluded that most Honduran mall cops and Wendy’s security guards are bossy, power-hungry humbugs with sizeable sticks up their fannies, the kindness shown to us by the wonderful folks in Omoa left a lasting positive impression of their beautiful country. Ramón became our surrogate father during our brief stay and we are immensely grateful for his patience and benevolence. Don Guadalupe’s earnest generosity and his way with words—even when his words often meandered in an endless stream—were also appreciated and enjoyed. But even as we part ways with yet another country, we know full well that new adventures will surely be had, we’ll continue to meet wonderful people and be the recipients of even more gestures of kindness. We know Guatemala won’t let us down. Guatever our expectations may be, Guatemala will meet and exceed them.*

*Thus far, Guatemala has far exceeded our expectations… so much so that we haven’t yet found the time to recount our experiences on the blog. We apologize for the delay. We appreciate your patience and your continued readership!  And, as always, we absolutely love receiving your comments!

Also, thank you Gary and Dara for the electrolyte powder! We have consumed it joyfully and have saved the backup stash like you suggested.

For more information about organic certification, Fair Trade, Equal Exchange, Theo and Askinosie Chocolate, here are some links:

http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/!ut/p/c4/04_SB8K8xLLM9MSSzPy8xBz9CP0os_gAC9-wMJ8QY0MDpxBDA09nXw9DFxcXQ-cAA_2CbEdFAEUOjoE!/?navid=ORGANIC_CERTIFICATIO&navtype=RT&parentnav=AGRICULTURE

http://www.transfairusa.org

http://www.EqualExchange.coop

http://www.equalexchange.coop/profile-of-conacado-in-the-dominican-republic

http://www.equalexchange.coop/profile-of-cacvra-in-peru

http://www.theochocolate.com/

http://www.askinosie.com

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July 27 to August 4- Shifting gears

Idyllic island shot

After more than one month of cycling, we are all pretty excited to hit up a tropical island in the Caribbean and unwind. Postcards depict the Bay Islands with vivid images of white sand beaches, cerulean waters, and cold drinks and hammocks for all! But in order to get to Heaven, we have to endure a bit of Hell.

We board our ferry bound for Utila Island, expecting to enjoy a pleasant hour chugging gently across the Caribbean. But this isn’t a typical ferry. We descend into a dank and dim room, roughly square in shape. Although there are windows, the horizon is invisible when seated. After everyone is aboard, the door is shut and sealed, locking out any circulation of fresh air. Without a moment’s hesitation, a ferry attendant begins nonchalantly handing out barf bags. “It’s rough today,” he says, with a knowing smile on his face. Devon says, “I never get motion sickness,” and then on second thought, asks for a bag.

The ferry glides away from shore smoothly enough. But then, just as we are settling into the relaxing rocking of our voyage, the vessel hits open water and suddenly the mighty hand of Poseidon himself lifts us up and smashes us back down into the sea, hard. The boat is thrown and tossed about in such a stomach-flipping way that the ferry puts any former favorite carnival ride to shame.

Devon jumps from her seat with excitement and joins Peter and Logan, who are standing closer to the bow. Janell and Kat go pale-faced and tilt their heads down. Alyssa and Kate stay seated momentarily and then opt for standing positions. Devon is beaming with a wide-eyed goofy little kid’s face, exclaiming, “This is great!” every time the ship bucks and barrels violently over to one side.

Forty minutes later, Devon is seated, face green and skin clammy, eyes fixed straight ahead. Logan asks Devon for her barf bag so he can have it at the ready “just in case.” Alyssa is vomiting repeatedly next to Devon. Kat hasn’t brought her head up the whole ride. Janell is listening to Enya and practicing meditative breaths. Kate is standing, clinging to a nearby pole like a rag doll, before finally sliding down onto a seat in dizzy exhaustion. Peter is perched atop a metal bar, his face stern and resolute, expertly masking any signs of motion sickness.

We finally disembark on Utila, shaky and a bit delirious. But our welcome party is happily awaiting our arrival, brightening our spirits. Kate’s brother, Ben, and his girlfriend, Carrie, greet us with hugs, jokes and laughter and lead us to the Utila Dive Center, where Kat and Peter sign up for a scuba certification class. Our hotel is swanky, complete with hammocks, bar, and swimming pool. We devour pizza after pizza at the bar and Logan is presented with the baked potato he has been anxiously craving for days. (Thank you for dinner, Mary!)

Preparing for an action shot

The next few days is a tranquilo mishmash of sunbathing, scuba diving, snorkeling, and eating copious amounts of American-style food (French toast, waffles, granola and yogurt, all-you-can-eat salad bar, grilled animal flesh, nachos, bacon). Sadly, though, many of the commercial fisheries surrounding

Tail end of the action shot

Utila are in danger of acute decline, due to a markedly lopsided preference for satisfying market demand over adhering to fishing regulations. After learning this, we make a concerted effort to avoid the more threatened species of fish on our meal outings. There are a dozen or so restaurants along the sole road traversing Utila, and we become regulars at half of them, at least. As our party variously bands and disbands throughout each day, we somehow manage to dine at the same places but at different times, maintaining a steady stream of faithful patronage. Walking past one another, we’ll offer up neighborly waves and perhaps share some island gossip, and then continue on. It’s all very colloquial, in a Mr. Rogers-sort of way.

The main Utila road-- normally more heavily trafficked with motorized vehicles

This lone road, which runs east to west along the south shore of the island, takes about 40 minutes to walk from one end to the other. It’s well-traveled during the day, seeing an interesting assortment of bikes, motorcycles, pedestrians, all-terrain vehicles and the occasional van or truck, all moving along at their respective speeds—which is to say, the walkers walking slow and the motor-craft going far too fast. There’s not much space and no lanes to speak of, so the prudent pedestrian soon learns to step quickly and watch the road ahead. Not one of us is run down during our entire stay, which seems almost miraculous, come to think of it.

View of Utila, the town

Utila, along with the larger Roatán and Guanaja to the east, constitute the major landmasses of Honduras’s Bay Islands. Another 65 cayes round out this 125-kilometer long island chain, which is a mostly submerged adjunct of the Sierra de Omoa mountain range. Aside from a few notable humps—Utila’s Pumpkin Hill reaches 82 meters, and Michael’s Peak on Guanaja, at 415 meters, is the highest point on the islands—the chain is remarkably flat, almost disappearing into the horizon. All this, though, is arguably beside the point: Most come here to see what’s under the sea, not above it. The islands lie along what is the southernmost edge of a massive barrier reef (the world’s second-largest, in fact), and their waters literally teem with aquatic life.  Turtles, dolphins, barracuda and hundreds of species of coral call the Bay Islands home, and titanic whale sharks frequent the plankton-rich depths off Utila’s north coast. Our stay was limited to that particular island, but the others all boast equally (if not exceedingly) impressive aqua-fauna. An afternoon spent snorkeling at any of the myriad reefs encircling Utila will yield sightings of the most flamboyantly colored, fantastically wrought creatures one could imagine—an entire waterscape stranger than fiction. Dr. Seuss may have seen one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish—but he couldn’t hold a candle to what Utila has to offer.

Divemaster Peter

Kat and Peter go on a number of dives as part of their open-water diving certification, and the reef does not disappoint. Together they see spotted eagle rays and huge pods of bottlenose dolphins, as well as a dazzling kaleidoscope of fish and coral. On Thursday Kat’s friend Nick sails in from Roatán, and he joins the daily outings to the reef for diving. Days on Utila pass alarmingly fast when one dives: morning boats leave between 7 and 8 a.m. and return by noon; after a quick lunch break, the afternoon boats leave around 1 p.m. and don’t get back until 4 or so. The water’s pretty choppy at this point, and the pelicans and frigate birds normally soaring overhead have postponed their air-to-sea fishing acrobatics until the morn. Thus ends the day for the diver, waterlogged and pruney-fingered and smelling of brine.

Fascinating local art

Of course, the island adventures aren’t limited to purely underwater pursuits. Poor Kate becomes well-acquainted with the interior of her hotel room, as she is bed-ridden with a bad case of heat exhaustion throughout the majority of our island stay. Janell dutifully plays mother figure and tends to Kate’s health.

The others—Logan, Alyssa and Devon—decide to forego typical tourist attractions and venture instead on the road less traveled. They set out one day to ascend the wildly acclaimed Pumpkin Hill—apparently the only hike on the island, which practically no one ever climbs, because, why hike in the sloth-inducing heat when you can relax on the beach, snorkel and scuba? The trio, however, decides this might be a fun little jaunt, and embarks on a fruitless effort to find the most direct route to the summit. Alyssa starts the adventure off on a promising note when she asks a stranger for directions to “Pig Hill.” The stranger shakes her head, saying she has never heard of this hill and leaves Alyssa standing there puzzled. Logan and Devon offer no help, as they are overcome with laughter at Alyssa’s innocent slip of tongue. Soon, directions are found to Pumpkin Hill and the trio begins the long walk along what Devon dubs “The Road to Perdition.” The long, seemingly endless strip of pavement is blazing in the heat, with no shade anywhere in sight. The road finally opens up to a vast, scorching section of asphalt with no visible signs of a road or trail leading to their destination. At a police officer’s instruction, they dejectedly turn around and retrace their tracks all the way back up the Road to Perdition to where they missed the trail turn-off long ago. At this point, they encounter two very large, very loud local women puttering around the island in their golf cart. The women cackle wildly and deliver animated admonishments against the very idea of venturing through mosquito-infested territory by foot in this god-forsaken heat! After delivering their two cents, the riotous women zoom off in a cacophony of cackles and our flabbergasted travelers collapse to the ground in a delirious fit of giggles. They decide that perhaps their trek should wait until the next day and retreat back to the comfort of their hotel.

The following morning, Logan, Alyssa and Devon resolve to find Pumpkin Hill once and for all. They forge through heat, mud, and swarms of flies and mosquitoes. Their entrance into the swampy bit brings about a veritable feeding frenzy for mosquitoes and the three frantically coat themselves in DEET for good measure. After one long, hot slog, they finally crest the seemingly mythical Pumpkin Hill and take in a panoramic view of the island and surrounding Caribbean.

Makeshift shade!

The tropical vista is pretty enough, but the hill is devoid of breeze and the travelers are weary from heat. The sweet thought of relaxing in the comfort of shade on the nearby beach beckons them away from the summit. They descend to the white sand shore, littered with washed-up refuse, and scour up and down for shade. No shade. There is no shade. In a wave of panic, the team becomes incredibly resourceful in a most pathetic way. They plant four sticks in the sand, and tie the corners of the bed sheet to each of the sticks. Voila! A makeshift fort! The three huddle under this scant supply of shade for a good couple hours, in a most comical end to their double-day journey. Needless to say, Logan, Alyssa and Devon spend the rest of their island stay occupying themselves with more typical tourist activities, like snorkeling, lounging and eating.

Group hug!

The group’s idyllic respite ends with a crushing dose of reality: Kat must leave us for good. She’s expected back in the states for graduate school, so her plans call for a more direct route homeward. Alas, no more seven-fold cycling synergy. We spend Sunday living it up island-style one last time before heading back to La Ceiba the following morning. Our teary goodbye involves lots of hugs and group photos, and many promises to keep in touch. We miss you, Kat. Cycles of Change will never be the same.

Memories made for a lifetime

After an impossibly calm ferry ride (many of us took Dramamine; all of us expected the worst), we hop on our bikes and head west to Tela, another beachside city 100 kilometers away. Kate is still feeling under the weather after her debilitating bout of heat exhaustion, so she and Devon bus ahead to stake out our territory. The other four settle in for the long haul, riding along mostly flat terrain that occasionally cuts through neat rows of palm-oil plantation before crossing back into cattle pasture. Tela turns out to be unremarkable in every regard. Caribbean beachside notwithstanding, the place lacks any real charm and is decidedly less quixotic than our island getaway. That’s right—we’re jaded beach bums now, and only the best will do. Utila has spoiled us rotten.

We leave Tela Tuesday morning and ride the 60-odd kilometers to muddy, muddled El Progreso. Along the way we pass vendor after vendor selling rambutan (a red spiny-skinned cousin of the lychee) and nance, an astringent, grape-sized yellow fruit reminiscent of quince. During our ride, Kate also spots an odd spectacle: a kid riding his bike with a big blue live crab sandwiched between each of his hands and the handlebars—a daring feat, indeed. Perhaps the highlight of our stay in El Progreso occurs at the very beginning, right as we’re about to book a hotel: We see a lion! Nay, two of them! In the middle of a busy intersection…immured in a steel cage…being towed by a dinky circus van. It is at once shocking and hilariously absurd, and we share a good laugh at the big cats’ expense. Then we retire to our chambers, where, after a hot shower, a marathon of television (Everybody Loves Raymond, Seinfeld, Scrubs, 30 Rock) is to be watched in air-conditioned comfort. The trappings of modernity have a certain nostalgic appeal, we’re not gonna lie.

From El Progreso we take a bus into San Pedro Sula, and somehow Kate loses her helmet along the way. We suspect it bounced out when the back door of the bus momentarily flew open after a bump, but we can’t be certain. In any case, Kate is soon coiffed in an awesome “Star Sport” casco and we ride about 20 kilometers north to a cacao cooperative in Choloma. Our bikes will chill out here while we spend the next two days giving charlas near Omoa, where a group of cacao promoters has agreed to have us.

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July 19 to 26- The Day We Climbed Forever

Group shot, post-charla

It’s bright and sunny the day of our nutrition charla in El Carbón. What starts as a blazingly hot morning progresses into a real scorcher by noon, especially near the wood-fire oven that Micah (a Peace Corps volunteer) is stoking for some brownie baking later on. We’re hanging out at Micah’s host mom’s house, and a crowd of women and their children have shown up for the charla. While the former Peace Corps volunteers wow the eager audience, the others help Micah roast dried, fermented cacao beans and peel off their bitter shells, gathering the bared beans to be ground into paste. Soon an enormous tub of brownie batter is mixing away, courtesy of Peter’s hands-on baking technique.

Hike water break

The charla is a hit—no surprise there—and afterward comes lunch at long last. We plow through enormous bowls of soup and munch on brownies so decadently dark and delicious, most of us are buzzing off theobromine-sugar highs for hours afterward. Later, after Micah shows off his neat little house sitting alongside a cornfield, he takes us on a short hike up the side of the valley. We take in the whole of Jalapa from a rocky outcropping near the top, and on the descent we spot a three-toed sloth flashing his privates at us—a slow-motion exhibition artist at his finest.

The Full Frontal

We part ways with Micah on Tuesday morning and bus to Ocotal, where Laura reunites us with our trusty steeds. (Thanks for everything, you two.) From there we make a brief overnight stop in Dipilto before crossing into Honduras. Rather, we fly into Honduras: immediately following the border is the most exhilarating downhill we’ve come across yet, both steep and surprisingly lengthy. A memorable introduction, indeed. As Nicaragua disappears in a greenish blur behind us, the scenery subtly morphs from dense equatorial jungle into sparse, sun-dappled copses of evergreen trees.

Our grand entrance into Honduras

This is the Central American pine-oak forest, a 43,000 square-mile tract of montane greenery that comprises parts of Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and southern Guatemala and Mexico. At least seven species of pine are endemic to this region, and the national tree of Honduras is counted among them—the Caribbean pine. Seeing pines and oaks and sweetgums dotting the hillsides is a little eerie after so much rainforest, and we legitimately wonder whether the trees had been planted there by humans for lumber.

We arrive at the capital city of Honduras by mid-afternoon on Wednesday. Tegucigalpa is bursting at the britches with chaos, as only the finest of big cities tend to do. Taking deep breaths, we board our bikes like diehard road warriors (either that, or an all-American mobile circus) weaving in and around various traffic jams in a seamless stream of blinding neon. Imagine New York City congestion on steroids, but with all formerly accepted traffic rules deemed null and void. The honking is deafening and the exhaust will inevitably cause long-term respiratory problems for us all, but we are relentless as we make our steady way to the heart of the city, avoiding potholes, construction work, and the like. A hair-raising and heart-pounding few kilometers later, we reach el Parque Central (the Central Park). Here, we decide to ask a policeman if he knows the whereabouts of our hotel. He kindly escorts us the whole way there, along with an entire policía entourage in tow. The extra personnel seem to glom on at random, as if they had absolutely nothing better to do than follow a gringo train from block to block.

Upon reaching our hotel, we race up the stairs to greet the newest member of Cycles of Change! She’s sound asleep in her bed after a long red-eye flight from Portand, Oregon. But, that doesn’t stop Devon from yelling out her name, “Alyssa!” And suddenly, Devon and Alyssa are locked in a joyful embrace. Peter, Logan and Kate receive the same felicitous recognition, and happy introductions are made by Kat and Janell. After some mirthful tittering, Kat asks Alyssa how her flight was, and that’s when Alyssa goes all stony-faced. She recounts the most horrifying air travel story we could imagine. Only forty minutes into her five-hour flight from San Francisco to Miami, she realizes that she’s feeling a bit sub-par. Of course, she’s assigned a window seat and her aisle mate is sleeping. After a heroic effort trying to curtail her nausea, Alyssa begs to be let out of her seat and makes her way down the aisle to the bathroom. She only gets about three steps before…well, there’s no discrete way to describe what happens next…projectile vomit covers a well-dressed businessman’s entire front! All’s well for the rest of the ride, minus the fact that she may have lost all hope at ever befriending the victim of her airborne spectacle.

Some funky tongue soup

Flight horror story recounted, we all decide it’s time for dinner. We exit the hotel to find that dark has descended and few places remain open for dinner, although the time is only around 7 p.m. We ask a policeman for directions to the nearest comedor (little restaurant) and he leads us—again with an armed policía posse trailing behind—to a dark maze of corridors criss-crossed within a concrete complex. The labyrinth is sketchy, to say the least, and despite all our apprehensive gut feelings about the situation, we remind ourselves that we’re travelling with about six policemen and it will all be okay.

And, it is. Finally, one of the dark tunnels opens up to a loud, steaming cluster of kitchens. We sit stadium style in front of one and order up a round of baleadas, tortillas filled with eggs, beans, and cheese. We leave the scene content, our stomachs full, and scoring a few slick bumper stickers that read, “Vamos Volando”—We are flying.

Logan and Devon-- European Intelligencia at its finest

Our hostel is nestled in a vibrant pocket of colonial-style Tegucigalpa, complete with a faux Eiffel Tower, flocks of fluttering pigeons, and a convenient cobblestone boulevard designated solely for pedestrians. Our corner of the city is positively steeping with European flavor, like a royal bag of English Breakfast tea. Devon and Logan appear dressed for the theme the following morning when the group finds them relaxing on a park bench sipping espresso. Several Honduran passersby have already insisted that Logan is German. Devon has just treated herself to a chocolate éclair, and would be the spitting image of “French” if only she was wearing a beret.

Kate's new haircut!

We jokingly dub ourselves “European Intelligencia” for the day, and busy ourselves with indulgent activities, like purchasing a Spanish copy of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, painting toenails, cutting hair, and buying chocolate Frosties at Wendy’s. Again, we feel almost like foreign dignitaries, with people pushing generosity to the limit. Logan, Peter, Alyssa and Devon are escorted by Officer Martinez (accompanied yet again by an armed entourage) for many blocks to a trustworthy taxi. After reaching their destination, they scour a supermarket for bug repellent, but to no avail. Alyssa asks a woman if she knows where one could find such a necessary item, and the woman volunteers to drive somewhere to pick a bottle up for us. She returns about 20 minutes later with bug repellent and vitamin B tablets and refuses to let Alyssa pay for it.

European Intelligencia enjoying glasses of wine at long last

We attribute all this positive attention to our newly acquired celebrity status. Surely the people of Honduras heard about us from a Nicaraguan radio station. The icing on our quasi-European cake is our evening spent at El Paradíso, a Bohemian little hole-in-the-wall where they skimp on the wine, yet provide a cozy little alcove for followers of semi-contrived art culture.

White bread, anyone?

The next morning we designate for errands before hopping on an afternoon bus bound for Juticalpa. It is in this eyeblink of a town that we try Central American Chinese food for the first time, and to our complete and utter surprise, it’s not bad. They do give us a basket of sliced white bread for an appetizer, though, which was a little weird. We go to bed stuffed with cosmopolitan chow and mentally prepare for the morn: our first ride as a septet!

Saturday starts out swimmingly enough. We don our team jerseys and hit the road, a fluorescent streak seven bikers strong. The skies are clear and the sun is hot. Morale is astronomically high, along with heightened levels of camaraderie, altruism, and general feelings of goodwill toward the universe. Unfortunately, things sort of went uphill from there.

The updated Cycles of Change team!

Saturday, let it be said, shall go down in Cycles of Change history as a day of epic struggle, an arduous ascent of biblical proportions—The Day We Climbed Forever (On An Unpaved Road, No Less). By the end of it, all of us had succumbed to the comforts of flatbed trucks that taxied us and our battered bikes into Gualaco. Needless to say, we do little that night but eat and go straight to sleep.

Feliz Navidad!

And then comes Christmas in July! On a Sunday otherwise spent riding the bus in our spandex (we had planned to bike but impulsively decided against it), we redeem ourselves by arranging a White Elephant gift exchange after some home-cooked curry and coconut rice. Who celebrates Christmas in July besides prospective mattress buyers? Us, of course. Feliz Navidad!

Today we rode a rainy 74 kilometers to Jutiapa, and tomorrow we embark for the Bay Islands!

Also!  We’ve started uploading photos to our Gallery sidebar on the right.  Check them out!

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