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

1 Comment

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One response to “August 19 to 30- Cycles of Change Goes X-treme

  1. Dara Fredericksen

    This is a great update! (Glad you powered through it Devon.) Love the stories, pictures, humor, humility, information. I’m guessing future blogs will originate from back in the states. Welcome home Cycles of Change Tour team!

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